Black Death origin mystery solved

Black Death origin mystery solved


Black Death origin mystery solved

DNA from remains in Kyrgyzstan provides important clue

Medical researchers cut open rats suspected of carrying bubonic plague in New Orleans,US, in 1914, when one of the last major outbreaks of plague in the country took place.

A deadly pandemic with mysterious origins: It might sound like a modern headline, but scientists have spent centuries debating the source of the Black Death that devastated the medieval world.

Not anymore, according to researchers who say they have pinpointed the source of the plague to a region of Kyrgyzstan, after analyzing DNA from remains at an ancient burial site.

“We managed to actually put to rest all those centuries-old controversies about the origins of the Black Death,” said Philip Slavin, a historian and part of the team whose work was published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

The Black Death was the initial wave of a nearly 500-year pandemic. In just eight years, from 1346 to 1353, it killed up to 60 percent of the population of Europe, the Middle East and Africa, according to estimates.

Slavin, an associate professor at the University of Stirling in Scotland who has “always been fascinated with the Black Death,” found an intriguing clue in an 1890 work describing an ancient burial site in what is now northern Kyrgyzstan.

It reported a spike in burials in 1338-39 and that several tombstones described people having “died of pestilence.”

“When you have one or two years with excess mortality it means that something funny was going on there,” Slavin told reporters.

“But it wasn’t just any year – 1338 and 1339 was just seven or eight years before the Black Death.”

It was a lead, but nothing more without determining what killed the people at the site.

For that, Slavin teamed up with specialists who examine ancient DNA.

They extracted DNA from the teeth of seven people buried at the site, explained Maria Spyrou, researcher at the University of Tuebingen and author of the study.

Because teeth contain many blood vessels, they give researchers “high chances of detecting blood-borne pathogens that may have caused the deaths of the individuals,” Spyrou told AFP.

Once extracted and sequenced, the DNA was compared against a database of thousands of microbial genomes.

“One of the hits that we were able to get… was a hit for Yersinia pestis,” more commonly known as plague, said Spyrou.

The DNA also displayed “characteristic damage patterns,” she added, showing that “what we were dealing with was an infection that the ancient individual carried at the time of their death.”

The start of the Black Death has been linked to a so-called “Big Bang” event, when existing strains of the plague, which is carried by fleas on rodents, suddenly diversified.

Scientists thought it might have happened as early as the 10th century but had not been able to pinpoint a date.