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The Ten Plagues of Egypt

After the construction of the pyramids, an unprecedented set of catastrophic events hit the Egyptian Empire. These events were so traumatic, that they made it into the records of both of the significant cultures of the time. The Israelites wrote it up in the old testament of the bible in the Book of Exodus, and the Egyptians wrote it up in the Ipuwer papyrus (now in a museum in Holland). The papyrus has been authenticated, and was written about 1,000 years after the events.

Unfortunately, both of the reports are later writings of an oral tradition, so they are not as good as eyewitness testimony. Luckily, they both agree about all of the significant details so that an earlier version can be reconstructed. This has now been done.

These events are know as the ten plagues of Egypt, and the search for an explanation was the subject of an episode of the Equinox television program.

This all takes place against a background of the Israelites having been enslaved by the Pharaoh Ramasees 2, so that he could build new cities. This resulted in the Egyptian and the Israelites living in different locations, and thus having a difference in exposure to the plagues.

This story all started when Doctor John S Marr MD, the chief epidemiologist for the New York city department of health read Exodus and thought that the techniques of epidemiology could be used to provide an explanation of these 10 plagues. One of his fundamental assumptions was that getting ten disasters that were completely unconnected is so improbable that at least some of the plagues must be related.

Doctor Marr knew that he would have to use an interdisciplinary approach to figure out exactly what happened, so he called upon Curtis Malloy to help him.

The first thing they tried to do was to figure out when and where the events happened, which they managed to do. The time is now generally accepted to be about 1260 BC, and the place is called Memphis, just south of modern day Cairo.

The description of the first plague tells of a river of blood. This leads to a number of questions that can be summed up by asking what river specific thing could turn the water red, and kill all of the fish?

This was solved when they came across a description of events in Carolina, USA in 1987. Due to exceptionally hot weather, there was an outbreak of the toxic algal bloom "Physteria". This dyno-flagellate algae dissolves the still living fish, making the water toxic. This fitted the description perfectly.

They reasoned that the Plague of frogs was caused by there being no fish alive to eat the frog spawn, resulting in a much larger number than normal surviving to reach maturity.

At the same time, one of the world's leading authorities on amphibians, DR Richard Wasasuk of the university of Halifax in Nova Scotia, Canada, had come up with his own explanation for the second plague. The bible uses only 1 word to refer to the common frogs and all of the species of frogs and toads. He used his expertise in amphibians, combined with the good description of their behaviour, to identify the species as the "bufo" toad. These toads produce a massive number of spawn in a single laying, hence the population explosion.

Due to the poisonous nature of the water, the toads left it as soon as possible, but not before ingesting a lethal dose of the toxins released by the Physteria. Due to this there were no toads left to eat the insects, resulting in the plague of lice.

This third plague, of lice proved hard to identify, due to the fact that the taxonomy of insect classification separating systematically into flies, beatles, etc was not developed until the time of Aristotle, which was quite a while later.

This lead them to go and visit Richard L Brown, curator of the Mississippi entomological museum, and an international expert on insects. He provided them with a list of 100 species that could have been translated as lice, so they had to be satisfied with that for now and move on to the fourth plague.

This plague of flies had to be related to the death of the frogs, but they could not narrow it down from the list of the horsefly, the housefly, the tetsi fly, the black fly, or the stable fly.

So they called upon the services of DR Andrew Spielman from the Harvard school of Public Health to try and help eliminate flies from the list. He managed to narrow it down to being the stable fly.

plague 5 was a plague on livestock, and after pulling a few strings, they were allowed into the facility at plumb island, Connecticut, USA. This facility is home to a lot of very dangerous diseases, as it is also known as the USDA animal research service. They went to talk to it's director, DR Roger Breeze.

DR Breeze suggested that the 5th plague could be blue tongue for the cattle, and African horse sickness for the horses. both of these are spread by the midge "coolacoidees", which would be the ideal candidate for the lice of plague 3.

plague 6 was boils and blains, which could be Glanders, an obscure bacterial infection used as a bio warfare agent during world war 1. It is carried by the stable fly, which only has a range of 1 mile.

plague 7 was a massive, but localised hailstorm.

plague 8 was an explosion of the locust population.

plague 9 was a massive sandstorm called a "cashimh".

plague 10, the death of the first born was caused by the grain being harvested and stored when wet, and covered in locust droppings. The grain storage pits were then covered with sand which made them hot and humid, ideal for growing bacteria.

The identity of this bacteria was found when DR Edwardo Montagnia of the Atlanta Center for Disease Control was called in by Cleveland doctors to find out why children were dying. This cause was identified as "Stachybotrys atra", a black water loving mould that grows on cellulose and produces mycotoxins on it's spores, which causes haemorrhaging of the lungs.

This was the perfect agent to be the cause of the 10th plague, but was only effective in killing the first born due to a combination of cultural factors. Firstly, it only effected the top part of the grain store, and the important people got first servings. Then, Egyptian first born were given an extra helping of the best food, as culturally they were thought of as the most important thing that the family possessed. This resulted in only the first born Egyptians being given a lethal dose of the toxins.

At the same time, the Israelites were using different practises for food preparation that didn't concentrate the infected grain into lethal doses. This resulted in no deaths among them.

On the whole, a very good piece of reconstruction, very professionally done.

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