Yellow Fever, Black Goddess: The Coevolution of People and Plagues

By Christopher Wills | Go to book overview
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4
Four tales from the New Decameron

Between March and July of the year in question ... it is reliably thought that over a hundred thousand human lives were extinguished within the walls of the city of Florence[.] Yet before this lethal catastrophe fell upon the city, it is doubtful whether anyone would have guessed it contained so many inhabitants.

Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron (tr. G. H. McWilliam)

In the summer of 1986, a Canadian government helicopter was carrying out a routine aerial survey that included some flights over remote Banks Island. This island, covered with low tundra vegetation, lies in the Northwest Territories, far above the Arctic Circle. In previous years, dead and dying muskoxen had often been spotted by aerial surveys. But now, as the helicopter flew over the peaceful landscape, the pilot suddenly saw the bodies of almost sixty wild muskoxen, scattered over several square miles. Had they been wantonly shot by airborne hunters? Veterinarians who were helicoptered to the site found that the truth was even more unnerving. All were discovered to have died, within the space of a few days, from acute respiratory infections.

During that summer, 122 sick and dead animals were found over an area of 1000 square kilometres. Muskoxen, which were driven to local extinction on the island a century ago by overhunting, have rebounded to a population size of 25,000, a size that has remained fairly stable. Before these dead and dying animals were examined, it had been assumed that shortage of food was now limiting the size of this recovered population. Microscopic investigation of various tissues showed that their deaths

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