International Team of Scientists Use Genetic Testing to Solve Centuries-Old Mystery of Black Death’s Origin
DNA analysis of early plague victims pinpoints Black Death’s start on Silk Road trading communities in mountain region of what is now modern-day Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia
Microbiologists and clinical laboratory scientists will likely find it fascinating that an international team of scientists may have solved one of history’s greatest mysteries—the origin of the bubonic plague that ravaged Afro-Eurasia in the mid fourteenth century. Also known as the Black Death, the plague killed 60% of the population of Europe, Asia, and North Africa between 1346-1353 and, until now, the original source of this disease has largely gone unsolved.
Using DNA analysis and archeological evidence, a multidisciplinary team of scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, the University of Tubingen in Germany, and the University of Stirling in the United Kingdom traced the pandemic’s origin to North Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia in the late 1330s.
In their study published in the journal Nature, titled, “The Source of the Black Death in Fourteenth-Century Central Eurasia,” the authors outlined their investigation of cemeteries in the Chüy Valley of modern-day Kyrgyzstan. The tombstone inscriptions showed a disproportionally high number of burials dating between 1338 and 1339 with inscriptions stating “pestilence” as the cause of death.
Big Bang of Plague
Using 30 skeletons that were excavated from these cemeteries in the late 1880s and moved to St. Petersburg, Russia, the scientists analyzed the DNA of ancient pathogens recovered from the remains of seven people. They discovered Yersinia pestis (Y. pestis) DNA in three burials from Kara-Djigach, which lies in the foothills of the Tian Shan mountains.
According to another article in Nature, the scientists showed that a pair of full Y. pestis genomes from their data were direct ancestors of strains linked to the Black Death, and that the Kara-Djigach strain was an ancestor of the vast majority of Y. pestis lineages circulating today.
“It was like a big bang of plague,” Krause stated at a press briefing, Nature reported.
The research team concluded that the Tian Shan region was the location where Y. pestis first spread from rodents to people, and that the local marmot colonies likely the prevalent rodent carriers of plague.
“We found that modern strains [of the plague] most closely related to the ancient strain are today found in plague reservoirs around the Tian Shan mountains, so very close to where the ancient strain was found. This points to an origin of Black Death’s ancestor in Central Asia,” Krause explained in a Max Planck Institute news release.
He told Nature that fleas likely passed the marmot-based infection on to humans, sparking a local Kyrgyzstan epidemic. The disease then spread along the Silk Road trade routes, eventually reaching Europe, where rats (and the fleas that they carried) spread the disease.
Understanding Context of Plague
Writing in The Conversation, Associate Professor of Medieval and Environmental History Philip Slavin, PhD, University of Stirling, who co-authored the study, explained that Kara-Djigach is unlikely to be “the specific source of the pandemic,” but rather that the “disaster started somewhere in the wider Tian Shan area, perhaps not too far from that site,” where marmot colonies were likely the source of the 1338-1339 outbreak.
Making a modern-day comparison, Krause told Nature, “It is like finding the place where all the strains come together, like with coronavirus where we have Alpha, Delta, Omicron all coming from this strain in Wuhan.”
Slavin maintains that understanding the “big evolutionary picture” is key when studying the phenomenon of emerging epidemic diseases.
“It is important to see how these diseases develop evolutionary and historically, and avoid treating different strains as isolated phenomena,” he wrote in The Conversation. “To understand how the diseases develop and get transmitted, it is also crucial to consider the environmental and socioeconomic contexts.”
Scientists have spent centuries debating the source of the Black Death that devastated the medieval world. The multidisciplinary process used by the Slavin/Krause-led team provides a lesson to clinical laboratory managers and pathologists on the important role they play when collaborating with colleagues from different fields on scientific investigations.
—Andrea Downing Peck