The First Biological Warfare: 3,300 Years Old

Made with tularemia

Probably the Americans were looking for these biological weapons in Iraq: 3,300 years old tularemia. A new research suggests that ancient texts coming from the Middle East could describe a biological warfare which happened more than three millennia ago.

The Hittites, whose empire dominated Asia Minor (current Turkey) and northern Syria, used diseased rams to spread tularemia amongst their enemies. Tularemia is caused by the bacterium Francisella tularensis which causes from skin ulcers to respiratory failure. Even today there's no vaccine against it and it remains a likely biological warfare or bioterrorist agent.

If what researchers believe the texts describe is true, this would the oldest biological warfare. The bacterium can be transported from animals like rabbits and sheep to humans by vectors like ticks and flies. "Modern medication can stop the tularemia from becoming fatal. But without proper antibiotic treatment, about 15% of infected individuals die. Tularemia is rare in many countries today, but remains a problem in some countries including Bulgaria," said co-author Siro Trevisanato, a former microbiologist, from Oakville, Ontario, Canada.

Tularemia seems to have caused the deadly epidemic called the "Hittite plague", devastating the Middle East in the 14th century BC. By 1335 BC, letters to the Egyptian king Akhenaten signaled a deadly epidemic outbreak in Simyra, a Phoenician city in northern Lebanon. Donkeys had been linked to the epidemic banned entering the city. Trevisanato believes it could have been tularemia, as indeed, insects can transmit tularemia from donkeys to humans. Ten years later, the Hittites attacked from the north the city. "The Hittites were able to steal booty, including animals, and brought the animals home, along with the tularemia the livestock harbored," said Trevisanato.

But soon the Hittites were struck by tularemia, and even their king Suppiluliuma I and his heir, Arnuwanda, died of it. The story repeated several years later, when another ancient people, the Lydians from western Asia Minor attacked the weakened Hittite. "They thought, if we attack now, we can push the border back to where we want," said Trevisanato.

But during the wars that took place between 1320 and 1318 BC, texts describe the appearance of rams on the Lydian roads. Lydians took possession of the rams, but soon their communities were devastated by the tularemia.

Trevisananato believes that the Hittites could have sent diseased rams, and the subsequently weakened Lydians were no longer able to lead campaigns against the Hittites. "Still, in order to consider the rams as a true biological weapon, evidence is needed to clearly prove that the Hittites understood the full ramifications of these animals towards their enemies. The intent would have to be not to just freak the enemy out, but to actually transmit disease. Until such intent to spread disease is proven beyond a doubt, any theory is speculative", said Mark Wheelis from the University of California, Davis.

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