In the 14th century, an extremely deadly disease decimated approximately 60% of the European population in just eight years. We are obviously talking about the Black Death, an extremely contagious and now very famous disease. Recently, scientists have just pierced one of its greatest secrets: its origins.
The origins of the plague
In the 14th century, an epidemic of the Black Death caused a historic mortality rate in Europe. In just 8 yearsthis highly contagious disease has killed more than 60% of the European population. The Black Death epidemic reached Europe in 1346 via the Mediterranean basin, particularly via transport and freight ships. In addition to a very high death rate in Europe, the Black Death also heavily affected the Middle East and North Africa. It also marked a long wave of epidemics which regularly reappears intermittently for almost 500 years.
One of the big questions around this Black Death pandemic obviously concerns its origins. For a very long time, the origin of the plague has animated debates in the scientific sphere. One of the most advanced hypotheses by scientists is that the plague was born in china. But no concrete evidence has ever detailed this theory.
The opinion of scientists
Recently, scientists have answered this vast question and were able to determine the origins of the plague. Thanks to the DNA of deceased humans from of a 14th century burial site in the north of present-day Kyrgyzstan, scientists were able to determine the origins of the plague in Europe. Phil Slavin, a professor at the University of Stirling in Scotland, learned of the existence of two medieval burial sites in Kyrgyzstan. On more than 400 tombstonesa hundred were dated from 1338-1339shortly before the start of the pandemic, and had an epitaph mentioning a death by pestilence.
To find the causes of these deaths, the researchers dug into the dental DNA of 7 skeletons. As Maria Spyrou, a German researcher, explains:
The dental pulp is a valuable source, as it is a highly vascularized area which gives a high chance of detecting pathogens in the blood.
The DNA was then sequenced and compared to a database containing the genome of thousands of bacteria. Thanks to the results obtained, the researchers learned that the bodies studied had been infected with the bacterium Yersinia pestis, responsible for the development of the Black Death. This community in Kyrgyzstan had therefore been the victim of the same scourge that struck Europe shortly after. Scientists have also been able to determine that this bacterium is a strain of the Black Death. The one at the base of the plague family tree.
These findings lead scientists to believe that Kyrgyzstan was the starting point of the plague epidemic in Europe. Furthermore, rodent studies have found traces of a strain of this bacteria in their DNA. “The closest we have found in the world” said Johannes Krause, researcher at the Max Planck Institute.
Despite popular beliefs, the plague has never been eradicated from the face of the earth. Every year, thousands of people are infected, especially in Central Asia. But thanks to current medical methods, the risk of a global pandemic is virtually nil.