Date:

Researchers identify the origins of the Black Death

The Black Death, also known as the Pestilence, was a bubonic plague pandemic occurring in Afro-Eurasia during the 14th century.

The disease is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis and spread mainly by fleas, leading to the death of 75–200 million people.

- Advertisement -

In 1347, the plague first entered the Mediterranean via trade ships transporting goods from the territories of the Golden Horde in the Black Sea. This first wave further extended into a 500-year-long pandemic, the so-called Second Plague Pandemic, which lasted until the early 19th century.

The origins of the Second Plague Pandemic have long been debated. One of the most popular theories has supported its source in East Asia, specifically in China. To the contrary, the only so-far available archaeological findings come from Central Asia, close to Lake Issyk Kul, in what is now Kyrgyzstan.

These findings show that an epidemic devastated a local trading community in the years 1338 and 1339. Specifically, excavations that took place almost 140 years ago revealed tombstones indicating that individuals died in those years of an unknown epidemic or “pestilence”. Since their first discovery, the tombstones inscribed in Syriac language, have been a cornerstone of controversy among scholars regarding their relevance to the Black Death of Europe.

In this study, an international team of researchers analysed ancient DNA from human remains as well as historical and archaeological data from two sites that were found to contain “pestilence” inscriptions.

- Advertisement -

The team’s first results were very encouraging, as DNA from the plague bacterium, Yersinia pestis, was identified in individuals with the year 1338 inscribed on their tombstones. “We could finally show that the epidemic mentioned on the tombstones was indeed caused by plague”, says Phil Slavin, one of the senior authors of the study and historian at the University of Sterling, UK.

The Black Death source strain

Researchers have previously associated the Black Death’s initiation with a massive diversification of plague strains, a so-called Big Bang event of plague diversity. But the exact date of this event could not be precisely estimated, and was thought to have happened sometime between the 10th and 14th centuries.

The team now pieced together complete ancient plague genomes from the sites in Kyrgyzstan and investigated how they might relate with this Big Bang event. “We found that the ancient strains from Kyrgyzstan are positioned exactly at 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 [meaning the year 1338]”, says Maria Spyrou, lead author and researcher at the University of Tübingen.

But where did this strain come from? Did it evolve locally or did it spread in this region from elsewhere? Plague is not a disease of humans; the bacterium survives within wild rodent populations across the world, in so-called plague reservoirs. Hence, the ancient Central Asian strain that caused the 1338-1339 epidemic around Lake Issyk Kul must have come from one such reservoir. “We found that modern strains most closely related to the ancient strain are today found in plague reservoirs around the Tian Shan mountains, so very close to where the ancient strain was found. This points to an origin of Black Death’s ancestor in Central Asia”, explains Johannes Krause, senior author of the study and director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

The study demonstrates how investigations of well-defined archaeological contexts, and close collaborations among historians, archaeologists and geneticists can resolve big mysteries of our past, such as the infamous Black Death’s origins, with unprecedented precision.


Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-022-04800-3

Header Image – Plague inscription from the Chu-Valley region in Kyrgyzstan. The inscription is translated as follows: “In the Year 1649 [= 1338 CE], and it was the Year of the tiger, in Turkic [language] “Bars”. This is the tomb of the believer Sanmaq. [He] died of pestilence” – Image Credit : A.S. Leybin, August 1886

- Advertisement -
spot_img
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.
spot_img
spot_img

Mobile Application

spot_img

Related Articles

Excavation uncovers traces of the first bishop’s palace at Merseburg Cathedral Hill

Archaeologists from the State Office for Monument Preservation and Archaeology (LDA) Saxony-Anhalt have uncovered traces of the first bishop’s palace at the southern end of the Merseburg Cathedral Hill in Merseburg, Germany.

BU archaeologists uncover Iron Age victim of human sacrifice

Archaeologists from Bournemouth University have uncovered an Iron Age victim of human sacrifice in Dorset, England.

Archaeologists find ancient papyri with correspondence made by Roman centurions

Archaeologists from the University of Wrocław have uncovered ancient papyri that contains the correspondence of Roman centurions who were stationed in Egypt.

Study indicates that Firth promontory could be an ancient crannog

A study by students from the University of the Highlands and Islands has revealed that a promontory in the Loch of Wasdale in Firth, Orkney, could be the remains of an ancient crannog.

Archaeologists identify the original sarcophagus of Ramesses II

Archaeologists from Sorbonne University have identified the original sarcophagus of Ramesses II, otherwise known as Ramesses the Great.

Archaeologists find missing head of Deva from the Victory Gate of Angkor Thom

Archaeologists from Cambodia’s national heritage authority (APSARA) have discovered the long-lost missing head of a Deva statue from the Victory Gate of Angkor Thom.

Archaeologists search crash site of WWII B-17 for lost pilot

Archaeologists from Cotswold Archaeology are excavating the crash site of a WWII B-17 Flying Fortress in an English woodland.

Roman Era tomb found guarded by carved bull heads

Archaeologists excavating at the ancient Tharsa necropolis have uncovered a Roman Era tomb guarded by two carved bull heads.