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Secrets in the Bones: The Hunt for the Black Death Killer

It was once considered impossible to unmask an ancient killer by retrieving its DNA hidden for centuries. But today microbiologists are doing just that....... they are hunting down infamous mass murderers... like the Black Death.
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Hendrik Poinar is a bit of a mystery man – as in, he likes to solve them. And he’s part time traveler – as in, he likes to dig up the past. Think Doctor Who meets Indiana Jones.

Poinar is an evolutionary biologist - which means he studies the nature of how we humans got here and where we’re going. He happily admits his childhood dream was to travel the world and travel back in time.

Dr. Poinar excavating a victim in Italy.

“No-one imagines that there’s actually something still hidden within a bone that’s been buried for a few thousand years or 100,000 years, let alone the possibility of resurrecting it or bringing it back to life,” says Poinar.  “I mean, that’s sort of completely bizarre. It’s like a time machine, yeah, it’s a kid’s dream.”

Secrets in the Bones follows Poinar on an epic journey to Italy, Germany, Britain and across the Unites States. His mission:  solve one of the greatest mysteries of science, a mystery that has eluded researchers for more than six centuries: unlock the secrets of the fourteenth century killer disease that caused the Black Death and wiped out more than 50 million people.

Listen to an interview with Hendrik Poinar, the evolutionary biologist featured in the film.

Read a review by tv critic Jim Bawden.

To help him Poinar assembles an international team of experts. There’s a lot at stake here: If they’re successful, they’ll gain knowledge that could help us fight deadly infectious diseases today and, potentially, save millions of lives. 

The prime focus of their quest is ancient DNA, specifically the DNA of the pathogen that caused the Black Death. There is a prime suspect – a bacterium called Yersinia pestis – but nobody has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was the culprit. That’s what Poinar and his team plan on doing. But first they have to find Yersinia pestis. The only place where it may still exist is locked in the bones of those who died more than six centuries ago.

Black Death graves are rare, but there was one massive burial site in London. As the plague swept across Europe, London’s city fathers took action. Knowing it was only a matter of time before the Black Death arrived, they built a massive graveyard in East Smithfield just outside the ancient city walls. Using bones from this cemetery, Poinar’s team began a formidable quest – searching for a fragment of the pathogen that killed these people.

Paul Gaylord's blackened hands from the Bubonic plague

It’s a critical task and if you thought the Black Death was a thing of the past – think again. The disease still claims victims to this day.  Just ask Paul Gaylord. What he thought was a nasty case of flu turned out to be a life-threatening nightmare he’d sooner forget.

Paul and his wife Debbie live in Prineville, Oregon. Paul used to be a welder – not any more. A year ago Paul lost all his fingers and toes. Paul’s troubles began when he tried to help his cat. The cat had a mouse stuck in its palate. When Paul tried to remove it, the cat accidentally bit him. Days later Paul found himself in intensive care.

Paul’s story is at the heart of Poinar’s quest.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are responsible for protecting us from infectious diseases. If Poinar is successful, his discoveries could provide them with an early warning system to fight this nasty pathogen.

Skeleton in a grave at the church of at San Pietro de Pozzeveri, Italy

But the possibilities of Poinar’s work don’t stop here. From clues unearthed while examining the bones from East Smithfield, Poinar believes the Black Death may have been caused by more than one pathogen. In Secrets in the Bones we travel to the top secret Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California to find out if Poinar is right.

At the same time Poinar digs deep into another mystery. The Black Death killed 50% of Europe’s population, but 50% survived. The question is why? Poinar wants to find out because he believes that variations in our genetic code could protect us from a whole host of infectious diseases.

Secrets in the Bones follows Poinar’s quest to do something no other scientist in history has ever done - crack the code of an ancient killer and change the way we fight killer diseases in the 21st century.

Credits (Click to expand)

director and writer
Liam O’Rinn

executive producer
Dugald Maudsley
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editor
Eamonn O’Connor

music by
Todor Kobakov

director of photography
Jerry Vienneau
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sound recordist
Michael Kennedy

producer
Dugald Maudsley

researcher
Monika Delmos
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production manager
Diane Marcotte

production coordinator
Gillian Main

visual effects designer
Mark Alberts

post production supervisor/online editor
Eric Wiegand
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visual researcher
Elspeth Domville

sound design
Grant Edmonds

colour correction
Colin Moore
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publicist
David Mccaughna

stills photography
Glenn Lowson


production accountant
Anne Sinclair

legal counsel
David Steinberg
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archival material courtesy of
Bridgeman Art Library
Clare Flemming/American Museum of Natural History
Paul, Debbie, and Diana Gaylord
Discovery FootageSource/Getty Images
Framepool
iStock
Museum of London Archaeology
Pond5
Screenocean
T3 Media
©Roger-Viollet / The Image Works
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produced in association with
Canadian  Broadcasting Corporation
(logo) 2014

senior producer
FM Morrison

executive producer
Sue Dando
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for Infield Fly Productions
Gillian Main, Business Affairs

special thanks
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Farncombe Family Digestive Health Research Institute
Field School Pozzeveri
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
McMaster University
Museum of London
Pistoia Sotterranea
Spitalfields Charnel House
St Giles’ Cripplegate
St. Paul’s United Church
Toscana Film Commission
Tübingen University

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produced with the participation of the Canada Media Fund

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produced with the assistance of
Canadian Film or Video Production Tax Credit
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Ontario Media Development Corporation – Tax Credit Program
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produced with the participation of
Rogers Telefund
(logo)

Canadian Federation of Musicians
(logo)
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produced by
Infield Fly Productions (logo-animated)
@ 2013 IF: Secrets Productions Inc.
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for the nature of things

online editing
Jessica Nardi

associate director
Renée Moreau

unit production manager
June Hall
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senior manager
Documentary Unit
Wilma Alexander

senior producers
FM Morrison
Caroline Underwood
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for the nature of things

executive producer
Sue Dando

executive director
Documentary Programming
Mark Starowicz
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with David Suzuki

produced by
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

cbc.ca/natureofthings
 


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