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For centuries, scientists and historians have debated the question of where the Black Death came from. Numerous theories have been suggested to explain the origins of a pandemic that wiped out half the population of Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia in just eight years, between 1346 and 1353. Tens of millions of people died.
Now, it seems that the mystery of the Black Death's origins may have finally been solved. Philip Slavin of the University of Stirling in Scotland was first intrigued by an 1890 description of a spike in deaths at a cemetery in the Chu Valley region of northern Kyrgyzstan in the late 1330s – seven or eight years before the earliest pandemic deaths elsewhere. Tombstone inscriptions stated that the deceased had "died of pestilence."
Slavin teamed up with researchers including Maria Spyrou of the University of Tübingen in Germany. The team extracted DNA from the teeth of seven of the individuals, searching for evidence of blood-borne pathogens. And sure enough, they detected Yersinia pestis – the bacterium that causes the bubonic plague – in three of the victims.
Notably, the Y. pestis strain found at the Kyrgyzstan burial site appeared to predate the diversification of strains carried by fleas on rodents. It appeared to not only be the ancestor of the plague strain that caused the Black Death, but the ancestor of existing plague strains that are still around today. The researchers even found similar strains in marmots still living in the Chu Valley region.
Unraveling the mystery of the Black Death:
- The cemetery's location near the ancient Silk Road suggests that the plague could have been carried by traders heading to the Black Sea from Central Asia. The first cases of the Black Death in 1346 were reported in the Black Sea region.
- The plague is not just medieval history – 3,248 cases and 584 deaths were reported between 2010 and 2015, according to the World Health Organization. Peru, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Madagascar had the most cases worldwide. Although it was untreatable and usually fatal in the 14th century, it can now be treated with antibiotics.
- The most recent urban outbreak of rat-carried plague in the United States was in Los Angeles in 1924-1925.