Future Focus

Researchers uncover origins of Black Death

An ancestor of the Black Death has been located in the Tian Shan region of Kyrgyzstan
An international team has linked spikes in deaths at cemeteries in Kyrgyzstan in the 1300s to the start of the plague pandemic. Ancient DNA from bubonic plague victims, buried in cemeteries on the Silk Road trade route in Central Asia, has pinpointed the area in northern Kyrgyzstan.
The Black Death killed tens of millions of people in the mid-14thcentury, and, between 1346 and 1353, killed up to 60% of the populace in Western Europe, and 50% in the Middle East. Dr Philip Slavin, one of the historians who helped with the discovery, also described the “unaccountable number” of individuals who died in the Caucasus, Iran, and Central Asia. The research was published in Nature.
“Our study puts to rest one of the biggest and most fascinating questions in history, and determines when and where the single most notorious and infamous killer of humans began,” shared Slavin.
The researchers noticed a significant rise in burials near Lake Issyk Kul, in the Tian Shan region of Kyrgyzstan, from 1338-1339.
“We have basically located the origin in time and space, which is really remarkable,” said Professor Johannes Krause, at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. “We found not only the ancestor of the Black Death, but the ancestor of the majority of the plague strains that are circulating in the world today.”
The researchers shared that they retrieved ancient DNA traces of the Yersina pestis plague bacterium (Y pestis) from the teeth of three women who died in 1338-1339. The earliest documented deaths of the plague were in 1346.
The researchers reconstructed the pathogen’s genome, revealing that this strain gave rise to the strain of the Black Death that caused millions of deaths across Europe and Asia. Further, the strain is also the ancestor to most plague strains existing today. This was a sign, Professor Krause shared, of an explosion in Y pestis diversity, shortly before the Black Death.
Michael Knapp, associate professor at New Zealand’s University of Otago, underlined some limitations of the research, however, including small sample size.
Inscriptions on some of the tombstones mentioned the cause of death as “mawtānā”, the Syriac language term for “pestilence”.