The Black Death pandemic, which wiped out a large part of the European population in the Middle Ages, appeared in Central Asia, in what is now Kyrgyzstan, according to a study that ended nearly seven centuries of questioning.
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Thanks to ancient human DNA, extracted from a 14th-century burial site in northern Kyrgyzstan, researchers have been able to trace the source. Their findings, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, settled a very old debate among historians.
The epidemic of the Black Death reached Europe in 1346 through the Mediterranean basin, via ships carrying goods from the Black Sea. In just eight years, the Black Death killed up to 60% of the population of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. It marked the beginning of a long wave of the epidemic, which reappeared sporadically for 500 years.
where were you born One of the more advanced leads was China, but there is no solid evidence to support this theory.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the Black Death, and one of my dreams has been to solve the mystery of its origins,” disaster historian Phil Slavin, one of the study’s authors, said during a press conference.
This professor at the University of Stirling (Scotland) learned of two medieval burial sites near Lake Issyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan, which were excavated at the end of the 19th century.
Of the more than 400 tombstones, one hundred have been accurately dated: 1338-1339. With an inscription mentioning “The Death of Epidemics”, in Old Syriac. Lots of signs of abnormal excess mortality within the community, seven or eight years before the Black Plague hit Europe.
To find the cause of death, the researchers looked at the DNA of seven skeletons. “Dental pulp is a valuable resource, because it is an area with high blood vessels which gives a great opportunity to detect pathogens in the blood,” Maria Spiro, from the University of Tübingen in Germany, told AFP.
The DNA can be sequenced – a precise job because it is segmented – and then compared to a database containing the genomes of thousands of bacteria.
The verdict: The bodies were infected with the bacteria Yersinia pestis, the bacillus responsible for the black plague, which is transmitted to humans via rodent fleas. So this society was the victim of the same scourge that afflicted Europe a few years later.
Analyzes of the Yersinia pestis genome also revealed that it was an ancestral strain of the bacteria. which lies at the base of the “genetic tree” of the plague.
Scientists rightly link the emergence of the Black Plague in Europe with the genetic “Big Bang” during which the bacteria of the stem diversified widely.
In the heart of the Silk Roads
The breeds discovered in Kyrgyzstan are precisely “at the core of this enormous diversity”, which occurred around the 30s of the XIII century. Confirming that this region of the world, Tian Shan, was indeed the starting point for expansion, according to Maria Spiro.
In addition, in rodents living today in Tian Shan, researchers have identified a strain of bacteria very close to that of human victims in 1338-1339, “the closest found in the world,” added Johannes Cros, of the Max Planck Institute, co-author. to study.
These were ethnically diverse Christian communities (Mughals, Uyghurs…) who practiced long-term trade according to found funerary objects: pearls from the Pacific, coral from the Mediterranean, silk clothes… “who lived in the heart of the Silk Roads, they had to travel a lot, which played a role in the spread of the epidemic across the Black Sea,” says Phil Slavin.
Plague has not been eradicated from the face of the earth: every year thousands of people continue to be infected, especially in Central Asia. In the Tian Shan Mountains, badgers are the main animal reservoir for disease.
Fortunately, he is not afraid of a deadly pandemic like the one that occurred in the Middle Ages: not because the bacteria are less virulent, but because the conditions for hygiene and the use of antibiotics have nothing to do with the past.
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