Where did the plague come from?

Stirling. In 2017, the plague hit the island of Madagascar. It has been proven that thousands of people became infected and more than 200 people died. The focus was reminiscent of a disease that at least many people in the Western world know only as the horror of long-forgotten times. It caused the Black Death, one of the greatest pandemics in human history.

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The plague spread across Europe from 1346 to 1353, killing millions and causing political and social upheaval. Despite extensive research on this topic, it is uncertain where it originally came from. Scientists now believe they have found the starting point of the epidemic.

Municipal workers are disinfecting a class at an elementary school in the Andraisoro district of Antananarivo, Madagascar, on October 2, 2017 after one person died in the neighborhood.

Municipal workers are disinfecting a class at an elementary school in the Andraisoro district of Antananarivo, Madagascar, on October 2, 2017 after one person died in the neighborhood.

The study, presented by scientists led by Johannes Kraus of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Leipzig) in the journal Nature, is based on genetic analyzes of the plague pathogen, Yersinia pestis. Researchers searched for genetic traces of the plague bacterium in the remains of seven people buried in two cemeteries near Issyk-Kul, the largest lake in Kyrgyzstan, in 1338/1339.

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The genetic material of the plague pathogen was found

Background: Syrian-Aramaic inscriptions on some tombstones indicate that people buried there died of a “plague”. From the first archaeological excavations of the graves between 1885 and 1892, experts wondered if the plague could not have been an unknown epidemic that had caused an unusually high number of burials at the time. “Of the 467 precisely dated tombstones between 448 and 1345, 118 were from 1338 and 1339,” explains Phil Slavin, a historian at the University of Sterling (UK) and one of the study’s lead authors. “Obviously something happens when you have a year or two of such excessive mortality.”

In fact, the researchers found genetic material from the pathogen in the remains of three dead. “We finally managed to prove that the epidemic mentioned on the tombstones was actually caused by the plague,” says Slavin.

The origin of the plague in Kyrgyzstan?

What does this mean for the origins of the Black Death – a pandemic that raged mainly in Europe a few years after this outbreak of the plague? Does this mean that the most popular theory so far that the plague originated in East Asia, specifically China, is off the table? The researchers are at least convinced that they have found the area of ​​origin of the Black Death in the tombs in Kyrgyzstan, the name of which probably dates back to the black discoloration of infected people, which sometimes occurs.

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On the one hand, the results of their detailed genetic analysis justify this. The researchers compared the plague genomes from Kyrgyzstan with the genomes of other historical tribes and those that still circulate to this day. Modeling has shown that genomes from Kyrgyzstan belong to a very primordial variant and date back to the so-called Big Bang plague diversity – a term that describes the strong genetic segregation of plague strains.

“We have found that the ancient tribes of Kyrgyzstan are right at the site of this massive diversification event,” said Maria Spyrou, the first author of the study at the University of Tübingen. “So we actually managed to determine the origin of the Black Death and when it broke out – the year 1338.”

Pest control in rodents

The assumption is amplified by the analysis of plague pathogens that occur in rodents in the region today, the so-called plague reservoirs. The results suggest that the pathogen originates in the nearby Tian Shan Mountains. “Today, we find the modern tribes closest to the ancient tribe in the plague reservoirs around the Tianshan Mountains, very close to where this ancient tribe was found,” Krause explains. “So the Black Death’s ancestor seems to be from Central Asia.”

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The origin of the epidemic could, of course, be 50 or 100 kilometers from the site of the discovery – but a paleogeneticist considers origin in China unlikely. Then relatives of the historical pathogen should also be found in rodents. Marmots are among the most important animal hosts of the plague pathogen in the Tien Shan Mountains. “Perhaps the marmots were involved in the transmission that led to the epidemic we are describing,” Spyrou explains.

How did the plague spread to Europe?

Trade probably played a key role in the spread of the pathogen from Kyrgyzstan to Europe, scientists say. Archaeological findings have shown that the communities studied in Kyrgyzstan were artisans and merchants. “We see a lot of products made in remote regions, items related to long-distance trade,” Slavin explains. “Things like pearls that had to be collected in distant waters, in the Pacific or Indian Ocean, corals that had to come from the Mediterranean (…), beautiful silk clothes. All this creates the image of the business community, which was right at the center of domestic trade routes. “

The Black Death probably arrived in the Mediterranean in 1347 on merchant ships from the Black Sea. Several years ago, scientists – also after genetic analyzes of plague bacteria – reported that the fur trade was a possible transport route for pathogens in Europe. In the 14th century, the port city of Caffa (today: Feodosiya) on the Black Sea Crimean Peninsula was an important transshipment point for furs from the Russian cities of Bolgar and Nizhny Novgorod (both located on the Volga River). reported in 2018 Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences (“PNAS”).

Their investigation revealed that the genome of the plague pathogen from Bolgar was almost identical to the genomes of Yersinia pestis from Western Europe. In addition, archaeologists have found merchandise from the Netherlands in the mid-14th century in Bolgar. According to the authors of the study, this indicates a spread along the fur trade routes.

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The plague was a persistent pandemic

The fact that scientists are still interested in the pandemic centuries after it first appeared is probably partly due to its enormous scale: after its arrival in the Mediterranean, the Black Death spread to Europe, the Middle East and North Africa in a short time. It is estimated that a pandemic has wiped out at least 30 percent of the population, with some estimates as high as 50 or 60 percent.

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According to research published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, mortality probably varied considerably from region to region. After analyzes of pollen in 19 European countries, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human History Science say that agriculture had stopped in some regions while continuing in others – so the plague did not ravage the same everywhere, scientists conclude. But it was stubborn: the first wave of infection, the Black Death, spread to the so-called second plague pandemic, which until the early 19th century regularly caused epidemics in various areas.

Thanks to hygiene, the plague is almost non-existent today

However, the scale of the pandemic is not the only reason for lasting interest – but also the danger of new pathogens emerging today. “Like Covid, the Black Death was an emerging disease and it was the beginning of a massive pandemic that lasted about 500 years,” says Krause. “It’s very important to understand the circumstances in which it arose.”

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Could the plague spread the same horrors today as it did then? Scientists think it’s unlikely. The plague is mainly a disease of rodents, not so many people, Krause explains. “The main reason why we have not seen any major outbreaks in the last few centuries is sanitation. We just don’t live as close to rodents as we did in the past and we have fewer fleas than before, so there’s less risk of transmission. “

The plague still occurs today

Nevertheless, the plague still occurs today in various countries – as in 2017 in Madagascar. In addition to the island state, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Peru are most affected by the plague. Overall, the infectious disease, which is now easy to treat, has claimed only a few deaths. According to the WHO, between 2010 and 2015, 3,248 patients were registered worldwide, of whom 584 died.

It is not known exactly why the plague caused such a massive pandemic in the early 14th century. “The Black Death and its arrival in Europe were probably more or less coincidental,” says Krause. The pathogen encountered an immunologically naive population there – rodents and humans. “The last time there was a plague in Europe, as far as we know, was in the eighth century. So 600 years was not a plague. No one knew – neither culturally nor biologically – how to deal with this disease. “

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RND / dpa

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