Researchers believe they have uncovered the origins of the Black Death, more than 600 years after it killed tens of millions of people in Europe, Asia and North Africa.
The health catastrophe of the mid-14th century is one of the most significant pandemic chapters in human history.
But despite years of research, scientists still hadn’t been able to pinpoint where the bubonic plague started.
Now analysis suggests it was in Kyrgyzstan, central Asia, in the 1330s.
A research team from the University of Stirling in Scotland and the Max Planck Institute and the University of Tubingen in Germany analyzed ancient DNA samples from teeth from bodies buried in cemeteries near Lake Issyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan.
They chose this region after noting a significant increase in burials taking place there in 1338 and 1339.
Maria Spyrou, a researcher at the University of Tubingen, said the team sequenced the DNA of seven skeletons.
They analyzed the teeth because, according to Spyrou, they contain many blood vessels and offer researchers “a great chance to detect blood-borne pathogens that may have caused the individuals’ death.”
The research team managed to find the plague bacterium, Yersinia pestis, in three of them.
“Our study solves one of the biggest and most fascinating questions in history and determines when and where the most notorious and infamous killer of humans began,” Philip Slavin, a historian at the University of Stirling, said of the discovery.
The research has, however, some limitations — including the small sample size.
Michael Knapp of the University of Otago in New Zealand, who was not involved in the study, praised the work as being “really valuable”, but noted:
“Data from a lot more individuals, times and regions… would really help to clarify what the data presented here really means.”
The researchers’ work was published in the scientific journal Nature, with the following title: “The source of the Black Death in fourteenth-century central Eurasia”.
What is the bubonic plague?
Plague is a potentially lethal infectious disease, caused by a bacterium called Yersinia pestis that lives in some animals — mainly rodents — and in the fleas they carry in their fur.
Bubonic plague is the most common form of the disease that people can get. The name derives from the symptoms it causes — a painful swelling of the lymph nodes, forming a kind of blister, known as a “bubo”, in the groin or armpit.
From 2010 to 2015, 3,248 cases were reported worldwide, including 584 deaths.
Historically, it was also called the Black Death, in reference to the fact that it causes gangrene in certain parts of the body, such as the fingers and toes, which eventually turn black.