In a study published in the journal Nature, researchers have claimed that the disease originated in modern day northern Kyrgyzstan around 1338-1339 – nearly 7-8 years before it ravaged large parts of the world.
What was the Black Death?
- The term Black Death refers to the bubonic plague that spread across Western Asia, Northern Africa, Middle East and Europe in 1346-53.
- Most scholars agree that the Black Death, which killed millions, was caused by bacterium Yersinia pestis and was spread by fleas that were carried by rodent hosts.
- The microorganism Y. pestis spread to human populations, who at some point transmitted it to others either through the vector of a human flea or directly through the respiratory system.
- Contemporaries who wrote about the epidemic, often described the buboes (hard, inflamed lymph nodes) as the distinguishing clinical feature.
- The onset of symptoms was followed by intense fever and vomiting of blood. After the initial infection, most victims died within 2-7 days.
How did researchers pinpoint the Black Death’s origin?
- In the late 19th century, excavations of two Christian cemeteries near Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan unearthed a settlement of a trading community that had been affected by an unknown disease in 1338-1339.
- Historian Philip Slavin, one of the researchers involved in the present study, examined the tombstones, on which Syriac inscriptions stated that the victims died of an unknown epidemic or “pestilence”.
- The researchers then extracted DNA from the teeth of seven people that were buried at the cemetery and found genetic traces of Y. pestis bacterium.
Why is the new discovery significant?
The geographical origin point of the plague has been debated for centuries. Some historians have argued that the plague originated in China, and spread across Europe by Italian merchants who first entered the continent in trading caravans through Crimea.
Why was this plague called the Black Death?
It is commonly believed that the term Black Death gets its name from the black marks that appeared on some of the plague victims’ bodies. However, historians argued that this term, which only emerged centuries later, had less to do with the disease’s clinical symptoms, and more to do with how European writers from the 19th century onwards understood the epidemic.