Archaeologists from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) have found traces of Yersinia pestis (the Black Death) in human remains found at the Cal Pa i Figues necropolis in Vilafranca del Penedès, Catalonia, Spain.
The Black Death was a bubonic plague pandemic occurring in Western Eurasia and North Africa from 1346 to 1353. It is the most fatal pandemic recorded in human history, causing the deaths of 75–200 million people, peaking in Europe from 1347 to 1351.
The disease is caused by the bacterium, Yersinia pestis, a non-motile, coccobacillus that can infect humans via the Oriental rat flea (Xenopsylla cheopis). During the Black Death pandemic, it probably took a secondary form, spread by person-to-person contact via aerosols, causing pneumonic plague.
The origin of the Black Death is disputed; however, genetic evidence suggests that Yersinia pestis evolved approximately 2,600 years ago in the Tian Shan mountains located on the border between Kyrgyzstan and China.
The remains at the Cal Pa i Figues necropolis were uncovered during construction works to expand the headquarters of the Museum of Wine Cultures of Catalonia (VINSEUM). Approximately, 129 individuals were identified which date from the 14th century, of which 60 are minors.
The necropolis was completely unknown until its discovery, it was built near two hospitals in an alley that was later covered and built over. Due to the large number of individuals overlapping in the graves, the researchers suggest that the inhabitants of Vilafranca del Penedès were subject to a period of catastrophic mortality with no evidence of conflict or injury.
A genetic and DNA study was conducted on 16 burials in the DNA laboratory of the University’s Biological Anthropology Unit, which detected Yersinia pestis DNA in 7 of the 16 individuals analysed.
“This does not mean that the rest did not die from the infection, only that the DNA has not been preserved”, said Cristina Santos from UAB. “It has been a difficult task due to the inherent degradation of old DNA, but also due to the mixture of human DNA and possible pathogens with environmental DNA”.
Header Image – Luigi Sabatelli – Wellcome Images – CC BY 4.0