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We May Finally Know The Origin of The Black Death

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The plague initially arrived in the Mediterranean in 1347 on trade ships delivering commodities from the Golden Horde’s Black Sea domains.

In a massive outbreak known as the Black Death, the disease spread across Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa, killing up to 60 percent of the population.

This first wave grew into a 500-year pandemic known as the Second Plague Pandemic, which lasted until the early nineteenth century.

The cause of the Second Plague Pandemic has long been a point of contention. One of the most common explanations points to East Asia, notably China, as the source. On the other hand, the only archaeological evidence we have so far comes from Central Asia, near Lake Issyk Kul, in what is now Kyrgyzstan.

These data indicate that a devastating disease ravaged a local commercial community between 1338 and 1339. Excavations over 140 years ago uncovered tombstones showing that people died during an unexplained pandemic or “pestilence” at that time period.

The tombstones etched in Syriac language have been a source of debate among researchers since their discovery questioning their significance to Europe’s Black Death.

In this study, an international group of scientists analyzed historical and archaeological data from two locations that were both found to have “pestilence” inscriptions, as well as ancient DNA from human remains.

The initial findings of the study were quite promising, including the identification of Yersinia pestis DNA in individuals whose tombstones bore the year 1338.

“We could finally show that the epidemic mentioned on the tombstones was indeed caused by plague,” writes Phil Slavin, one of the study’s senior authors and a historian at the University of Sterling in the United Kingdom.

We May Finally Know The Origin of The Black Death
We May Finally Know The Origin of The Black Death

The original Black Death virus

Could this, however, have been the cause of the Black Death? Researchers previously linked the start of the Black Death to a tremendous diversification of plague strains, dubbed the “Big Bang” of plague diversity.

However, the exact date of this occurrence is unknown, but it is assumed to have occurred sometime between the 10th and 14th centuries. The researchers have now assembled whole ancient plague genomes from sites in Kyrgyzstan and studied how they might be linked to the Big Bang.

“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],” explains Maria Spyrou, lead author and researcher at the University of Tübingen.

Where did this virus first appear? Is it a locally evolved organism or one that has spread over the region? Plague is not a human disease; the bacterium can be found in wild rodent populations all over the world, known as plague reservoirs.

As a result, the ancient Central Asian strain that triggered the epidemic near Lake Issyk Kul in 1338-1339 had to have come from one of these reservoirs.

“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,” says Johannes Krause, the study’s principal author and head of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

The work reveals how examinations of well-defined archaeological contexts and tight interactions among historians, archaeologists, and geneticists can resolve major puzzles of the past with unprecedented precision, such as the origins of the infamous Black Death.

Image Credit: LYAZZAT MUSRALINA

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