Ancient DNA solves mystery of Black Death origin

i24NEWS - Reuters

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A skeleton suspected to come from a cemetery for victims of the Black Death bubonic plague, in London, the United Kingdom, on March 26, 2014.
AP Photo/Lefteris PitarakisA skeleton suspected to come from a cemetery for victims of the Black Death bubonic plague, in London, the United Kingdom, on March 26, 2014.

The Black Death killed tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people in the mid-14th century

Ancient DNA recovered from bubonic plague victims buried along the Silk Road trade route in Central Asia helped solve an enduring mystery – the origin of the Black Death, which was pinpointed to an area in northern Kyrgyzstan.

The medieval bubonic plague killed tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people in the mid-14th century, earning it the reputation of the most fatal pandemic in recorded human history.

Researchers said Wednesday that they retrieved DNA traces of the Yersinia pestis plague bacterium from the teeth of three women buried in the foothills of the Tian Shan mountains, who perished in 1338-1339.

The earliest deaths documented elsewhere in the pandemic were in 1346.

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They found that the strain not only gave rise to the one that caused the Black Death – which mauled Afro-Eurasia – but also to most plague strains existing today. 

"Our finding that the Black Death originated in Central Asia in the 1330s puts centuries-old debates to rest," said historian Philip Slavin, co-author of the study published in the Nature journal.

Slavin noted that it could have killed 50 percent of the Middle East’s population at the time, and an “unaccountable number” of people in the Caucasus and Iran.

The Silk Road was an overland route for caravans carrying goods back and forth from China to places like Constantinople and Persia. It is also thought to have served as a conduit of death if the pathogen hitched a ride on the caravans.

"We know that trade was likely a determining factor to the dispersal of plague into Europe during the beginning of the Black Death,” said archaeogeneticist and study lead author Maria Spyrou.

Pandemic origins are hotly contested, as seen with the debate over the current Covid pandemic’s emergence.

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