Black Death origin mystery solved… 675 years later

The mystery of the Black Death’s origins was solved in part at the KaraDjigach site in the Tian Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan — site of this 1886 excavation — where modern scientists recovered and tested DNA from remains at the ancient burial ground

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 analysing DNA from remains at an ancient burial site.

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.

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

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

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

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.

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.”

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

And rodents living in the region now were also found to be carrying the same ancient strain, helping the team conclude the “Big Bang” must have happened somewhere in the area in a short window before the Black Death.

“Data from far more individuals, times and regions… would really help clarify what the data presented here really means,” said Knapp.

Sally Wasef, a paleogeneticist at Queensland University of Technology, said the work offered hope for untangling other ancient scientific mysteries.


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