Scientists pinpoint origins of Black Death to Kyrgyzstan
The Black Death, one of the deadliest infectious outbreaks in recorded history – killing 75 to 200 million people worldwide between 1347 to 1351 – is thought by researchers to have originated in northern Kyrgyzstan in the late 1330s.
The origins of the bubonic plague, which hit Europe in the 1340s and wiped out 45 per cent of the population in its first wave, had remained a mystery for centuries.
The Black Death was previously believed to have originated near the Black Sea in 1346.
Researchers from the University of Stirling in Scotland and the Max Planck Institute and the University of Tubingen in Germany analysed DNA from teeth found in the Tian Shan region, whose gravestones referred in Syriac to “pestilence”.
The teeth contained the Yersinia pestis plague bacterium which could be traced back to before the Black Death and sparked a 500-year second plague pandemic in Europe.
Victims died in agony. The most common symptoms were large, pustulant boils on the groin, neck and armpits followed by fever and vomiting blood. The skin sores blackened and death came between two and seven days after infection.
“Up until now, the geographic and chronological origins of the Black Death have been debated but unknown,” said Dr Philip Slavin, a historian from the University of Stirling.
“Our study puts to rest one of the biggest and most fascinating questions in history and determines when and where the single most notorious and infamous killer of humans began. To my astonishment, [the remains] confirmed the beginning of the second plague pandemic,” said Dr Slavin.
The team studied specimens from two cemeteries near Lake Issyk Kul in northern Kyrgyzstan after identifying a spike in burials in 1338 and 1339.
Dr Maria Spyrou of the University of Tubingen said the team sequenced DNA from seven bodies “despite the risk of environmental contamination and no guarantee that the bacteria would have been able to be preserved. Most excitingly, we found DNA of the plague bacterium in three individuals.”
The Black Death might have originated in marmots, one of the most prevalent plague carriers in the region.
It probably reached Europe on flea-infested rats on ships and was first recorded in England in June 1348.
The researchers suggested that two Nestorian Christian communities near Lake Issyk Kul on the Silk Road were involved in international trade.
The Triumph of Death (1562) by Pieter Bruegel