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Scientists believe they may have solved the centuries-old mystery of the origin of the Black Death plague, which killed millions of people.
The answer may now have been found by researchers studying evidence from a burial ground in modern-day Kyrgyzstan, where DNA taken from the teeth of some of the dead was found to contain evidence of the bacteria that causes the plague.
The DNA found on the site is closely related to the strain that caused the Black Death less than a decade later, as well as to the majority of plague strains that circulate today.
Johannes Krause, a professor at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, described the ability to locate the origin 'in time and space' as 'remarkable', saying: "What we found in this burial ground… was the ancestor of four of five of those lineages – so it’s really like the big bang of plague."
The findings, published in the journal Nature, allow the researchers to better understand how the plague moved across the globe, as well as highlighting rapid improvements in DNA sequencing, which could prove useful when studying patterns of other historical diseases.
Our paper published today @nature describes an ancient epidemic that occurred in central Eurasia in the years 1338-1339. We find that the epidemic was caused by plague (Y. pestis) and that it was associated with the beginnings of the Black Death. https://t.co/nWzObniTT3— Maria A. Spyrou (@ma_spyrou) June 15, 2022
There are a number of theories about how the bacteria spread in the 14th century, the most popular being that it was spread by biting fleas which accompanied black rats.
Professor and bioarchaeologist Sharon DeWitte, who has studied the Black Death for two decades but was not part of the research, told NBC News the discovery offered 'concrete evidence those people, who were previously suspected to have died from the plague, are known for sure to have died during the first stages of the Black Death'.
DeWitte described how most of the cities hit by the pandemic lost between 30 and 60 percent of their populations during widespread outbreaks. The Black Death marked the beginning of the second plague pandemic, which lasted for more than 400 years.
Though the pandemic did eventually cease, researchers have differing opinions on when exactly it reached its end. Some have suggested it ended with the Great Plague of London in 1665 as the conclusion of the period, but other cities are known to have been struck by the plague after this event.
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