Ancient DNA trace reveals Black Death bacteria may have originated in Russia

Mass grave of the Black Death period, identified in the “16 rue des Trente Six Ponts” archaeological site in Toulouse, France.
Mass grave of the Black Death period, identified in the “16 rue des Trente Six Ponts” archaeological site in Toulouse, France. ©Archeodunum SAS, Michaël Gourvennec

A team of researchers analyzed the genomes of 34 samples of Yersinia pestis, the bacteria that caused the Black Death and found that the oldest bacteria DNA came from Laishevo, a town in Russia's south-western Volga region.

It should be noted that the Black Death. Which is also known as the Great Plague, wiped out as much as 60 percent of the population of Europe in the 14th century. This disease rapidly spread from the shores of the Black Sea to central Europe.

As per the historians, the deadly disease first appeared in 1346 C.E. in the lower Volga region of Russia, but the researchers didn't know whether the highly virulent strain of this bacteria came from a single source or was introduced in Europe more than once by travellers who carried it from different parts of the ancient world.

The researchers at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany conducted analysis on 34 ancient genomes of Y. pestis, obtained from the teeth of people buried at 10 different sites in Europe from the 14th to 17th centuries.

After the study, the research team led by Maria Spyrou, have discovered that the earliest known evidence of this pandemic comes from Laishevo, in Russia's Volga region.

As per the recently published study, the team found that a strain of Y. pestis bacteria which was ancestral to all previous genome studies, differing by only one mutation from those caused the Black Death in Europe.

But it doesn't mean that the Black Death originated from Volga region specifically. As per the researchers, it could have come from elsewhere in western Asia. But scientists are yet to test the sample of ancient Y. pestis' DNA form Asia.

As per the study, which was published in Nature Communications, researchers noted that once the plague hit Europe, a single strain was responsible for the Black Death, from Italy to UK.

It should be mentioned that this strain also gave rise to other variants of Y. pestis which caused the plague outbreak between the 14th and 18th centuries.

As per the the bacteria arrived in Europe in October 1347, when 12 ships from the Black Sea docked at the Sicilian port of Messina. Many sailors aboard the ships died, while some were still alive but they were seriously ill and covered in black strange boils that discharged blood and pus. In the early 1340s, this disease had struck China, India, Persia, Syria and Egypt.

Related topics : Archaeology