‘History’s greatest pandemic’: Researchers discover origins of Black Death

‘History’s greatest pandemic’: Researchers discover origins of Black Death
Credit: Vincent de Groot/ http://www.videgro.net

The Black Death, also known as the Bubonic Plague which decimated Europe’s population in 1346-1353, is now believed to have emerged in Central Asia, in an area which is now part of Kyrgyzstan, a study has concluded.

Scientists, historians, and ethnographers have searched for the origin of the infamous pandemic for around 700 years, but research published in the Nature scientific journal claims to have finally cracked the case.

Using human DNA, extracted from a 14th-century burial site in northern Kyrgyzstan, researchers believe that they have now conclusively tracked the source of the deadly bacterial infection. According to their conclusions, the disease reached the shores of Europe in 1346 through the Mediterranean sea from ships carrying goods from the Black Sea.

The infection killed upwards of 100,000 people in Venice and London. So bad was the infection, that bodies would often pile up in the streets. In London, building projects and public works regularly dig up mass graves from the pandemic.

A 2018 study found that, in the areas which now make up Belgium, there was some of the lowest mortality from the Black Death, at around 20%.

History’s greatest pandemic

In the early stages of the pandemic, the disease killed up to 60% of the population of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. The pandemic then dragged on for a few more years, before appearing intermittently across the world for the next 500 years. The infection can now be treated easily by modern antibiotics, which were not available at the time.

Scientists found that the remains of ancient peoples buried in modern Kyrgyzstan contained evidence of early strains of the plague-causing bacterium Yersinia Pestis. This bacteria found in the remains would later go on to cause the Black Death in Europe.

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“It is like finding the place where all strains come together, like the coronavirus where we have Alpha, Delta, Omicron all coming from this strain in Wuhan,” explained Johannes Krause, a palaeogeneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, who co-led the study.

Before the Kyrgyz discovery, the most commonly accepted theory was that the infection emerged from China, where early cases were reported before the pandemic began in Europe. “There were all kinds of hypotheses in the literature. And it was not really known where it exactly came from,” Krause said.

Unravelling a mystery

Co-lead of the new investigation, Phillip Slavin of the University of Stirling in Scotland, came across records that suggested that the Kyrgyz graveyards may hold a clue. At the Kara-Djigach and Burana sites, there were an “unusually high number of tombstones dated to 1338 and 1339, ten of which made explicit reference to a pestilence.”

Using state of the art DNA-sequencing technology, the research team analysed the DNA of remains from the sites and found evidence of the bacteria in three of the burial sites. This bacteria strain was found to be precursor to the bacteria causing the Black Death in London in later years.

DNA of the bacteria were even found in remains of rodents and marmots in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and parts of China. The Black Death is believed to have travelled to humans through contact with fleas infected with the bacteria.

There is hope that the findings will allow researchers to explore the impact of the Black Death on East Asia, which to date has not been well documented by historians or scientists. “We would really like to get the Eastern part of the story.”

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