Ancient DNA helps shed light on the origins of the Black Death


A study published in Nature links a strain of bacteria that caused plague in Europe in the 14th century to outbreaks of the same disease that occurred a decade earlier in a Central Asian trading community.

Excavations near Lake Issyk Kul in present-day Kyrgyzstan were carried out between 1885 and 1892.AS Leibin

In the year 1347 the plague reached the Mediterranean coast on merchant ships carrying goods from the Golden Horde, a state created north of the Black and Caspian Seas after the dissolution of the Mongol Empire.

The disease spread rapidly to Europe, the Middle East and North Africa: it is estimated that Caused the death of more than 50% of the population, an epidemic that has been recorded in history as the Black Plague. But, in addition, the disease became endemic in several European regions, with outbreaks reappearing from time to time and not getting rid of it until the early 19th century.

The origin of this second great plague epidemic (the first corresponds to Justinian’s plague which devastated the Byzantine Empire in the sixth century) has long been debated. One of the most repeated theories places its origin in the Far East. Even then, The only archaeological finds so far available come from Central Asia.An outbreak in 1338–1339 devastated a trading community, in present-day Kyrgyzstan, near Lake Issyk Kul. Evidence pointing to that area as a possible origin.

A new study published in Nature An international team of researchers has analyzed the DNA of human remains, combining the results with historical and archaeological data. In particular, they are based on excavations carried out about 140 years ago in the cemeteries near Kara-Jigach and Burana, located in the Chu Valley in present-day Kyrgyzstan, in which several graves indicated that their occupants died in those years. Went. , Cause of “epidemic” of unknown origin,

Since these tombs, inscribed in the Syrian language, were discovered, they have been the subject of debate among experts, who are divided on the exact cause of death and its connection to the Black Death. Now this latest analysis confirms the presence of the bacteria responsible for the disease (ersinia pestis), found in persons who died in 1338.”Finally we have been able to show that the epidemic mentioned on the graves was actually caused by the plague“, says Phil Slavin, one of the lead authors of the study and a historian at the University of Stirling (UK).

big bang of diversity

Researchers believe that the Black Death begins with a massive mutation of strains, The event that he called the “big explosion of diversity”, Although it was speculated that it may have occurred at some point between the 10th and 14th centuries, the exact date could not be specified. The team has reconstructed the complete genome of Yersinia from depositors in Kyrgyzstan and their possible links to the Big Bang event.

“We have found that these ancient strains are at the root of this huge diversification event,” explains Maria Spirou, a researcher at the University of Tübingen and one of the lead authors of the article. Nature, “In other words, We’ve Found the Real Breed of the Black Plague and We Know Its Exact Date (1338)”.

In fact, plague is not a disease that originates in humans; The bacteria survive in wild rodent populations around the world, which serve as reservoirs and are transmitted through fleas that infect these animals, or by direct contact with them. Although it caused the deaths of millions of people around the world for centuries, Today it can be treated with antibiotics, Nevertheless, it remains endemic in some areas, where it is common to have a different number of cases each year.

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The authors argue that the ancient Central Asian strain that caused the 1338–1339 epidemic around Issyk Kul lake came from a nearby reservoir. Johannes Krauss, director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, concluded, “We found that the closest modern strains to the ancient strain are found in the reservoirs around the Tian Shan mountains, where the ancient strain was found.” ,This indicates that the predecessor of the Black Plague would have originated in Central Asia.,

The scientists further emphasize the importance of investigation in the archaeological context and the collaboration between historians, archaeologists, climate scientists and geneticists to uncover the mysteries of our past, the relationship between climate events and diseases and Its impact on the rise and fall of great civilizations of history

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