Scots scientist helps to end 675-year-old mystery and discover the origins of the Black Death

A team of researchers has determined the origins of the Black Death for the first time, ending a mystery after more than six-and-a-half-centuries.

By Stephen Wilkie
Wednesday, 15th June 2022, 4:01 pm
Updated Friday, 17th June 2022, 1:45 pm

The medieval, bubonic plague was first recorded in the 14th century and was the start of a near 500-year-long wave of killer diseases termed the Second Plague Pandemic.

The Black Death killed millions and was considered one of the largest infectious disease catastrophes in human history. The pandemic was also known as the Pestilence, the Great Mortality or simply, the Plague.

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Stirling University's Dr Philip Slavin was a key member of the Black Death team

Despite years of research, the geographic and chronological origin of the disease remained a mystery.

Its origins have been postulated by medieval chroniclers ever since its appearance in Europe, Middle East and North Africa and debated by historians for the last 270 years. The present study ends this mystery and dispute over the origins of the outbreak.

But a researcher from Stirling University now says that it first claimed lives in North Kyrgyzstan in the late 1330s.

The breakthrough discovery follows painstaking research which brought together palaeogenetics, history and archaeology experts from Scotland and Germany’s Max Planck Institute and University of Tubingen

Plague inscription from the Chu-Valley region in Kyrgyzstan. The inscription reads: “In the Year 1338, and it was the Year of the tiger, this is the tomb of the believer Sanmaq. He died of pestilence." Pic: A.S. Leybin, August 1886

They analysed ancient DNA (aDNA) taken from the teeth of skeletons discovered in cemeteries near Lake Issyk Kul in the Tian Shan region of Kyrgyzstan.

Scientists were drawn to these sites after identifying a huge spike in the number of burials there in 1338 and 1339, according to Stirling University historian Dr Philip Slavin.

The team found the cemeteries, at Kara-Djigach and Burana, had already been excavated in the late 1880s, with about 30 skeletons taken from the graves, but were able to trace them and analyse DNA taken from the teeth of seven individuals.

Excavation of the Kara-Djigach site, in the Chu-Valley of Kyrgyzstan within the foothills of the Tian Shan mountains Pic: A.S. Leybin, August 1886

The sequencing, which determines the DNA structure, showed three individuals carried Yersinia pestis, a bacterium which is linked to the beginning of the Black Death outbreak before it arrived in Europe.

“Our study puts to rest one of the biggest and most fascinating questions in history and determines when and where the single most notorious and infamous killer of humans began,” Dr Slavin said.

Part of his work involved studying the historic diaries of the original excavations in order to match the individual skeletons to their headstones, carefully translating the inscriptions, which were written in the Syriac language.

Dr Slavin added: “We studied specimens from two cemeteries near Lake Issyk Kul in what is now North Kyrgyzstan after identifying a huge spike in the number of burials there in 1338 and 1339. We then discovered that this site had in fact been excavated in the late 1880s with around thirty skeletons taken from the graves. We were able to trace these skeletons and analyse aDNA taken from the teeth. To my astonishment, this confirmed the beginning of the second plague pandemic.”

A plague doctor with protective mask Pic: Getty Images

Professor Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, said: “Just like Covid, the Black Death was an emerging disease, and the start of a huge pandemic that went on for some 500 years. It’s very important to understand actually in what circumstances did it emerge.”

The research study ‘The source of the Black Death in 14th-century central Eurasia’ is published in the Journal ‘Nature’.

Source of the Black Death: The remote Tian Shan mountains Pic: Lyazzat Musralina