The Black Death, the biggest pandemic of our history, was caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis and lasted in Europe between the years 1346 and 1353. Despite the pandemic’s immense demographic and societal impacts, its origins have long been elusive. Researchers have now obtained and studied ancient Y. pestis genomes that trace the pandemic’s origins to Central Asia.
The origins of the Second Plague Pandemic have long been debated. One of the most popular theories has supported its source in East Asia, specifically in China. To the contrary, the only so-far available archaeological findings come from Central Asia, close to Lake Issyk Kul, in what is now Kyrgyzstan.
An international team of researchers analysed ancient DNA from human remains as well as historical and archaeological data from two sites that were found to contain “pestilence” inscriptions ( Science).
Researchers have previously associated the Black Death’s initiation with a massive diversification of plague strains, a so-called Big Bang event of plague diversity. The team now pieced together complete ancient plague genomes from the sites in Kyrgyzstan and investigated how they might relate with this Big Bang event. “We found that the ancient strains from Kyrgyzstan are positioned exactly at the node of this massive diversification event. We found the Black Death’s source strain and we even know its exact date — 1338,” Maria Spyrou from the University of Tübingen said in a release.
They also found that the ancient Central Asian strain that caused the 1338-1339 epidemic around Lake Issyk Kul must have come from plague reservoirs around the Tian Shan mountains, so very close to where the ancient strain was found. This points to an origin of Black Death’s ancestor in Central Asia.