New research reveals Central Asia, rather than China, as origin of the Black Death

  • An international team of researchers pinpointed the start of the Black Death to the unusual surge of deaths in Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia in the late 1330s.
  • The bubonic plague, considered the most fatal pandemic known to humankind, caused the death of around a third of Europe’s population in the 14th century.
  • The scientists extracted DNA from bodies exhumed from a site by Lake Issyk Kul and from genetic fingerprints of the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which causes the plague.
  • “We found that the ancient strains from Kyrgyzstan are positioned exactly at the node of this massive diversification event,” said Maria Spyrou, the study’s lead author. “In other words, we found the Black Death’s source strain and we even know its exact date (the year 1338).”

A study by a team of international researchers has traced the origins of the Black Death to a site in Central Asia, countering previous theories that the bubonic plague emerged in China.

The plague, considered the deadliest pandemic ever known to humankind, caused the death of around a third of Europe’s population in the 14th century, and up to 200 million people worldwide.

Published in the journal Nature on Wednesday, the study drew on the previous work of Russian historian Phil Slavin, who linked the disease’s origins to a spike of deaths in a town in Central Asia from 1338 to 1339.

In their new study, the scientists extracted DNA from the teeth of seven bodies exhumed from the Kara-Djigach Cemetery by Lake Issyk Kulin in modern-day Kyrgyzstan.

They found that those buried with tombstones referring to a “pestilence” contained genetic fingerprints of the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which causes the bubonic plague.

The findings contradict previous theories that the Mongols may have brought the plague to China in the 13th century.

“We found that the ancient strains from Kyrgyzstan are positioned exactly at the node of this massive diversification event,” said Maria Spyrou, the study’s lead author. “In other words, we found the Black Death’s source strain and we even know its exact date (the year 1338).”

The disease was spread by rats and their fleas but can also be spread via person-to-person contact. For years, it was believed to have reached Messina’s Sicilian port via trade ships arriving from the Black Sea in 1347.

“It is like finding the place where all the strains come together, like with coronavirus where we have Alpha, Delta, Omicron all coming from this strain in Wuhan,” study co-author Johannes Krause said.

Slavin, who was also part of the research team, proclaimed that their findings “managed to actually put to rest all those centuries-old controversies about the origins of the Black Death.”

 

Featured Image via  Martin Bauschke

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