Ancient DNA from bubonic plague victims buried in cemeteries along the old Silk Road trade route in Central Asia has helped solve a long-standing mystery, pinpointing a region in northern Kyrgyzstan as the starting point for the Black Death, which killed tens of millions of people in the mid-14th century.
Researchers revealed on Wednesday that they discovered ancient DNA traces of the Yersinia pestis plague bacterium in the molars of three women who died in 1338-1339 in a medieval Nestorian Christian village in the Chu Valley near Lake Issyk Kul in the Tian Shan mountains’ foothills. In 1346, the first deaths were recorded elsewhere in the pandemic.
Reconstructing the pathogen’s genome revealed that this strain not only gave rise to the Black Death, ravaging Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa, but also the majority of current plague strains.
“Our discovery that the Black Death began in Central Asia in the 1330s settles centuries-old arguments,” said historian Philip Slavin of the University of Stirling in Scotland, who was a co-author of the study published in Nature.
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The Silk Road was an overland route for caravans transporting various goods from China to destinations such as the Byzantine capital Constantinople and Persia via the wealthy towns of Central Asia. If the infection took a ride on it, it might have been fatal.
“There have been several hypotheses suggesting that the pandemic originated in East Asia, specifically China, Central Asia, India, or even close to where the first outbreaks were documented in 1346 in the Black Sea and Caspian Sea regions,” said Maria Spyrou, archaeogeneticist and study lead author at the University of Tübingen in Germany.
“We know that trade was most likely a determining role in the spread of plague throughout Europe at the start of the Black Death. Between 1338 and 1346, comparable dynamics are likely to have determined the disease’s spread from Central Asia to the Black Sea,” Spyrou noted. As illustrated by the present COVID-19 pandemic’s origins, pandemic beginnings are widely debated, as reported by KSL.