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Scientists Believe They Have Uncovered the True Origins of the Black Death

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Published: July 28, 2022
black-death-wikimedia-commons
A mural painted by Pierart dou Tielt, depicting the suffering of victims of the Black Death in Tournai, in modern-day Belgium, circa 1353. It may be difficult to know when and where exactly this disease came from, but some scientists may have found the answer. (Image: Pierart dou Tielt via Wikimedia Commons Public domain)

Centuries before pandemics like COVID-19 dominated the news, the Black Death devastated Europe and Asia, killing around 50 million people between 1346 and 1353 — it is one of the darkest chapters in human history.

However, for all of its notoriety and impact in our history, no one knows precisely where or when it first emerged. 

Now, some researchers claim that they have pinpointed the origins of the dreaded disease, through a preceding lineage of the Black Death that still plagues us today.

The Black Death is a type of the bubonic plague that got its name from the black, rotten blemishes found on the skin of those infected by the bubonic plague. The regular symptoms include fever and swelling of lymph nodes.

Black Death, caused by the bacterium Yersinia Pestis, is commonly spread by rodents infested with fleas that carry the bacterium. 

Somewhere in our history, a single strain of the bubonic plague split into four different lineages; one of which mutated into the Black Death.

According to the scientists, whose research was published this June in the Nature journal, by tracing this strain’s evolution, they may have pinpointed where and when it came about.

Phil Slavin, co-author of the research, said they believe that this “gave rise to the majority of [modern plague] strains circulating in the world today.”

Following clues

The Tien Shan Mountains in Kyrgyzstan — the possible point of origin for the Black Death (Image: Bruno Rijsman via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0)

The scientists claim they have found biological evidence that the Black Death came from the Tien Shan Mountains near Chüy Valley, in present-day Kyrgyzstan. The location has long been suspected to be the possible point where Y. pestis expanded, starting with a discovery made in 1885.

In said discovery, two cemeteries were found in that area, containing a large number of tombstones inscribed with dates between 1338 and 1339, around eight years before the Black Death arrived in Europe.

The tombstones also described the cause of death as mawtana (Syrian for “pestilence”), hinting that a plague may have spread here.

According to Maria Spyrou, lead author of the research and geneticist at the University of Tubingen, Germany, Slavin and his team examined the DNA of the remains linked to the cemeteries to verify that plague had struck the area. 

Hundreds of bodies had been excavated from these cemeteries between 1885 and 1892 and moved to the Kunstkamera, the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Although the bodies had long decayed, Spyrou and her team were able to obtain information from tooth samples of seven bodies. With DNA technology, the team found traces of DNA from Y. pestis in three of the tooth samples, confirming the presence of the plague in that area.

Next, the scientists moved to ascertain whether the strain was closely connected to the Black Death.

Matching the modern-day plague from rodents in Central Asia with historical records of plague, the team was able to create an “evolutionary tree” to connect the dots between the strains and the one found in Chüy Valley.

The tree showed that the Chüy Valley strain differed from the Black Death strain “by only two mutations.” Since the Chüy Valley strain predated the Black Death one, they deduced that the Chüy Valley strain evolved into the Black Death strain.

Furthermore, the tree also showed that the Chüy Valley strain evolved into most other plagues in the world, spreading out into four lineages that scientists have dubbed the “Big Bang” strain.

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Definite answer?

Hendrik Poinar, evolutionary geneticist and director of the McMaster University Ancient DNA Center in Ontario, Canada, suggested that determining a date and location of the source of Black Death is “a nebulous thing to do.”

Since Y. pestis only mutates every five to 10 years, the Chüy Valley strain could have been passed to Chüy Valley from a different region, possibly carried by traders. The slow mutation would mean the strain from Western Europe and Chüy Valley strain might be very similar, making it harder to determine its origin. 

Still, Poinar acknowledges the importance of the study, which will help us come to an understanding of the Black Death. While he does not agree that the findings are conclusive, there was certainly a plague event at that time and place, which brings us ever closer in the quest to discover the origin of the deadliest plague known to man.