The Black Death of the Middle Ages was a lot like the Covid-19 pandemic in many ways: not only did it claim millions of lives, but it also had mysterious origins. In fact, researchers weren't sure what exactly caused this widespread disease in Medieval Europe - that is, until recently...
For those who don't know, the Black Death was a nearly 500-year-long pandemic that killed an estimated 60% of the populations of Europe, the Middle East, and Africa from 1346 to 1353 alone. Researchers learned that the bacterium linked to the beginning of the pandemic was called Yersinia pestis but remained unsure where it came from. After centuries of speculation, scientists have finally managed to trace the roots of the mysterious pandemic back to an area in northern Kyrgyzstan. Philip Slavin, a historian who worked on the team that conducted the study published in the journal Nature, was "always... fascinated with the Black Death." He knew he was on the verge of a huge discovery while reading an 1890 work describing an ancient burial site that was located in what is now northern Kyrgyzstan.
He learned of a spike in burials between 1338-39 - about seven or eight years before the Black Death - of people who "died of pestilence," the same bacterium that caused the pandemic. Slavin, who's also an associate professor at the University of Stirling in Scotland, teamed up with experts who specialize in examining ancient DNA. These scientists were able to extract DNA from the teeth of seven people buried in cemeteries on the old Silk Road trade route in Central Asia - according to Maria Spyrou, a researcher at the University of Tuebingen and author of the study. Thanks to the many blood vessels these teeth contain, scientists have "high chances of detecting blood-borne pathogens that may have caused the deaths of the individuals," Spyrou explained. The DNA was then studied in comparison to a database of thousands of microbial genomes. "One of the hits that we were able to get... was a hit for Yersinia pestis," said Spyrou, explaining the significant connection the discovery had with the mysterious Black Death.
"The study has shown how robust microbial ancient DNA recovery could help reveal evidence to solve long-lasting debates," explained Sally Wasef, a paleogeneticist at Queensland University of Technology. While a lot more research needs to be done on the subject, we're certainly hopeful the discovery could help us study current and future pandemics as well. Stay tuned.