Black Death May Have Started Here

Researchers believe 700-year-old teeth point to what is now Kyrgyzstan
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 16, 2022 12:24 PM CDT
Scientists May Have Solved a Mystery of the Plague
This 2016 photo, taken near the shore of Lake Issyk-Kul, shows a person on horseback with the Tian Shan mountain range in the distance.   (Wikimedia Commons/James Stronsky)

(Newser) Researchers say they've discovered "when and where the single most notorious and infamous killer of humans began." They're referring to the Black Death, or bubonic plague, which is thought to have wiped out tens of millions of people in Europe, Asia, and North Africa during what the Guardian calls "the deadliest pandemic in recorded history." Now, 700 years later, researchers say they've discovered the likely source of the plague: a region of what's now Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia, which sat on the ancient Silk Road trade route.

Historian Phil Slavin's suspicions were raised once he realized that 118 of 467 graves within two burial sites near Kyrgyzstan's Lake Issyk-Kul, dating from 1248 to 1345, were from two years: 1338 and 1339, per the Guardian. Ten of these were marked with a word meaning "pestilence," per Nature. Experts therefore set to work extracting DNA from skeletons that had previously been taken from the site to a museum in Russia, per CNN. They sequenced DNA for seven individuals, finding the genetic imprint of Yersinia pestis plague bacterium in three, all of whom died in 1338.

Researchers believe this reveals the source of the pandemic, as the single plague strain found in the skeletons' teeth preceded what CNN describes as "an explosion in diversity of plague strains" sometime before the Black Death devastated Europe. "It is like finding the place where all the strains come together, like with coronavirus ... [and] Wuhan," researcher Johannes Krause, co-author of a study published Wednesday in Nature, tells the outlet. "We found not only the ancestor of the Black Death, but the ancestor of the majority of the plague strains that are circulating in the world today," he adds, per the Guardian.

Modern strains of Y. pestis found in rodents surrounding the Tian Shan mountain range, which runs between Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and northwestern China, most closely relate to the ancient strain. "We can't really say [the source is] that village or that valley, but it's likely that region," Krause tells Nature. Researchers believe trade played a role in spreading the disease, and the region sat on the Silk Road trade route. Indeed, "the Kyrgyzstan graves were found to contain pearls from the Indian Ocean, corals from the Mediterranean, and foreign coins, suggesting that faraway goods passed through the area," Nature reports. (Read more Black Death stories.)

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