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Scientists could have discovered the origins of the Black Death


The Black Death began in 1338 in what’s now Kyrgyzstan, recent research suggests.

The bubonic plague outbreak ravaged the world between 1346 and 1353 and is essentially the most deadly pandemic recorded in human history, causing the deaths of as much as 200 million people.

Bubonic plague is brought on by the bacterium Yersinia pestis and is spread by fleas, but it may well also take a secondary form where it’s spread from individual to individual via droplets within the air.

In 1347, it first entered the Mediterranean via ships transporting goods from the territories of the Golden Horde within the Black Sea.

The deadly disease then spread across Europe, the Middle East and northern Africa claiming as much as 60 per cent of the population in a large-scale outbreak which earned it the nickname the Black Death.

The primary wave further prolonged right into a 500-year-long pandemic, referred to as the second plague pandemic, which lasted until the early nineteenth century.

The origins of the second plague pandemic have been the topic of debate. One of the popular theories has supported its source in east Asia, specifically in China.

Nonetheless, the one available archaeological findings up to now have come from central Asia, near Lake Issyk Kul, in what’s now Kyrgyzstan.

The findings show that an epidemic devastated an area trading community within the years 1338 and 1339.

Excavations that took place almost 140 years ago revealed tombstones indicating that individuals died in those years of an unknown epidemic or “pestilence”.

Since they were first discovered, the tombstones – inscribed within the Syriac language – have been a cornerstone of controversy amongst scholars regarding their relevance to the Black Death in Europe.

For the study, a global team of researchers analysed ancient DNA from human stays in addition to historical and archaeological items from two sites that were found to contain “pestilence” inscriptions.

The team’s first results were very encouraging, as DNA from the plague bacterium, Y. pestis, was identified in individuals with the 12 months 1338 inscribed on their tombstones.

Study senior creator Doctor Phil Slavin, an associate professor in history on the University of Stirling in Scotland, said: “We could finally show that the epidemic mentioned on the tombstones was indeed brought on by the plague.”

Plague skeletons unearthed

Researchers have previously associated the Black Death’s initiation with a large diversification of plague strains, a so-called Big Bang of plague diversity.

But the precise date of this event couldn’t be precisely estimated, and was thought to have happened sometime between the tenth and 14th centuries.

The research team has now pieced together an entire ancient plague genome from the Kyrgyzstan sites and investigated how they could relate with the “Big Bang” event.

Lead creator Dr Maria Spyrou, of the University of Tübingen, Germany, said: “We found that the traditional strains from Kyrgyzstan are positioned exactly on the node of this massive diversification event.

“In other words, we found the Black Death’s source strain and we even know its exact date.”

She explained that plague just isn’t a disease of humans; the bacterium survives inside wild rodent populations world wide, in so-called plague reservoirs.

The traditional central Asian strain that caused the 1338-39 epidemic around Lake Issyk Kul should have come from one such reservoir, say the researchers.

Co-senior creator Prof Johannes Krause added: “We found that modern strains most closely related to the traditional strain are today present in plague reservoirs across the Tian Shan mountains, so very near where the traditional strain was found.”

Prof Krause, director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, added: “This points to an origin of Black Death’s ancestor in central Asia.”

The findings were published within the journal Nature.


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