Plague came to Stone Age Europe: study
An article in the Current Biology journal argues that the bacterium entered Europe with the arrival of eastern immigrants.
The bacteria was thought to have been carried to Central Europe by a wave of migrations of steppe nomads between 4,800 to 3,700 years ago.
It is possible that prehistoric people were migrating to avoid the disease or that they were affected differently by the plague bacteria.
More than 500 skeletal tooth and bone samples were studied, recovering the full genomes of plague bacteria from six people’s remains.
These six sets of remains date to between the Late Neolithic and Bronze ages.
“This suggests that the plague either entered Europe multiple times during this period from the same reservoir, or entered once in the Stone Age and remained there,” said researcher Aida Andrades Valtueña.
The plague samples were found in Russia, Germany, Lithuania, Estonia and Croatia, a surprisingly wide area.
“The two samples from Russia and Croatia are among the oldest plague-positive samples published. They are contemporary with [one] previously published sample from the Altai region [Siberia],” said Alexander Herbig from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, who co-authored the study.
The bacterium, Yersinia pestis, caused major pandemics, including the Black Death in the 14th century, which is estimated to have killed 30-60 per cent of the European population.
Around 4,800 years ago, Caspian-Pontic steppe inhabitants, present-day Russia and Ukraine, began to move west and the genetic signatures of their arrival can be found in almost all Europeans today.
Analysis of the ancient plague DNA shows that Y pestis genomes from the Neolithic and Bronze ages were related.
These people carried a distinctive genetic component, also seen in Siberians and indigenous Americans, that had not been found in Europeans before the late Neolithic age.
Herbig said the study supported “the view that Y pestis was possibly introduced to Europe from the steppe around 4,800 years ago, where it established a local reservoir before moving back towards Central Eurasia”.
The team said the study showed that plague bacteria genes related to virulence changed at around that time but more work was needed to determine how these changes altered the severity of the disease.
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