Black Death may have started near the Lake Issyk Kul, in what is now Kyrgyzstan, according to a study published in Nature.
The plague first reached the Mediterranean area in 1347 in trading ships coming from the Golden Horde in the Black Sea. The disease quickly disseminated throughout Europe, The Middle East, and Northern Africa killing up to 60% of the population. It became known as the Black Death. This first wave then entered an extended 500-year-long pandemic that lasted until the early 19th century, which has been called the Second Plague Pandemic. However, little is known about how and where this disease started.
A popular theory is that it came from East Asia, specifically China. However, there is some limited evidence that it may have come from Central Asia instead, close to Lake Issyk Kul, in what is now Kyrgyzstan. Archeological findings suggest that an epidemic devastated this area in the years 1338 and 1339. Excavations revealed tombstones showing people dying from an unknown disease which they called the pestilence.
Now, researchers from the University of Sterling, UK, and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, German, analysed ancient DNA from human remains as well as archeological data from two locations known to have cases of the pestilence. The team found the plague bacterium, Yersinia pestis, present in the people that died in 1338. “We could finally show that the epidemic mentioned on the tombstones was indeed caused by the plague,” said Phil Slavin, one of the senior authors of the study and historian at the University of Sterling, UK.
But could this have been the start of the Black Death before it even reached Europe? Until now, researchers believed the Black Death started with a massive diversification of plague strains that boosted the spread of the disease. But they still don’t know when this event took place; possibly sometime between the 10th and the 14th centuries.
With the new results, the team investigated how the presence of the Black Death in Kyrgyzstan could be related to this spreading event. They found that ancient strains from Kyrgyzstan are located at the center of this massive diversification event. In other words, the researchers believe they found the exact location of the start of the Black Death in 1338.
The next question is, where did this strain come from? The plague spreads around with wild rodent populations. This means the ancient Central Asian strain that caused the 1338-39 epidemic in Lake Issyk Kul must have come from one rodent. “We found that modern strains most closely related to the ancient strain are today found in 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”, explains Johannes Krause, senior study author, and director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.
Spyrou, M.A., Musralina, L., Gnecchi Ruscone, G.A. et al. The source of the Black Death in fourteenth-century central Eurasia. Nature (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-022-04800-3
Great article. What I find odd is that it is illustrated with an image of a 20th century replica of a 17th century plague doctor that is as anachronistic as it is mythical.