Background: Until now, in the absence of direct microbiological evidence, the cause of the Plague of Athens has remained a matter of debate among scientists who have relied exclusively on Thucydides' narrations to introduce several possible diagnoses. A mass burial pit, unearthed in the Kerameikos ancient cemetery of Athens and dated back to the time of the plague outbreak (around 430 BC), has provided the required skeletal material for the investigation of ancient microbial DNA.
Objective: To determine the probable cause of the Plague of Athens.
Method: Dental pulp was our material of choice, since it has been proved to be an ideal DNA source of ancient septicemic microorganisms through its good vascularization, durability and natural sterility.
Results: Six DNA amplifications targeted at genomic parts of the agents of plague (Yersinia pestis), typhus (Rickettsia prowazekii), anthrax (Bacillus anthracis), tuberculosis (Mycobacterium tuberculosis), cowpox (cowpox virus) and cat-scratch disease (Bartonella henselae) failed to yield any product in 'suicide' reactions of DNA samples isolated from three ancient teeth. On the seventh such attempt, DNA sequences of Salmonella enterica serovar Typhi were identified providing clear evidence for the presence of that microorganism in the dental pulp of teeth recovered from the Kerameikos mass grave.
Conclusion: The results of this study clearly implicate typhoid fever as a probable cause of the Plague of Athens.