Ancient DNA puts Black Death’s origin in Russian region

In the 14th century, the Black Death wiped out as much as 60% of the population of Europe, spreading rapidly from the shores of the Black Sea to central Europe. Although historical records first document its appearance in 1346 C.E. in the lower Volga region of Russia, researchers didn’t know whether the highly virulent strain of Yersinia pestis bacterium that caused the deadly pandemic came from a single source or was introduced to Europe more than once by travelers carrying diverse strains of plague from different parts of the ancient world.

Now, by analyzing 34 ancient genomes of Y. pestis from the teeth of people buried at 10 sites across Europe from the 14th to 17th centuries (including a mass grave in Toulouse, France—AKSU), researchers at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, have found the earliest known evidence of this pandemic comes from Laishevo, in Russia’s Volga region.

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A chapel constructed of bones from humans who perished from the plague in the Middle Ages. ((Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images))

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Once the plague made it to Europe, researchers say, a single strain was responsible for the Black Death, stretching all the way from Italy to the United Kingdom.

However, as Science Magazine reports, the Volga region in Russia was not necessarily ground zero for the plague, since it could have originated in parts of western Asia, where scientists have not sampled the ancient DNA of Y. pestis.

“We have shown that extensive analysis of ancient Y. pestis genomes can provide unique insights into the microevolution of a pathogen over a period of several hundred years”, said senior author Johannes Krause, Director of the Department of Archaeogenetics at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, in a statement.

 

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