Ancient Black Death victims found in Russia
V.V. Kondrashin; V.A. Tsybin; Spyrou et al. 2018
Source: The Independent
Two skeletons buried in a 3,800-year-old shared grave show signs of the bubonic plague that spread throughout Europe in the 14th century, killing up to 200 million people. Despite its significance in shaping human history, the origin of the plague remains shrouded in mystery – but the new discovery has pushed its age back by at least 1,000 years. Examination of remains discovered in the Samara region of Russia revealed that both were infected by the same kind of bacteria that ravaged medieval Europe. The microbe in question, Yersinia pestis, had all the hallmarks of a disease that was able to spread rapidly and reach pandemic proportions. “Both individuals appear to have the same strain of Y. pestis,” said Dr Kirsten Bos of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. “And this strain has all the genetic components we know of that are needed for the bubonic form of the disease. “So plague, with the transmission potential that we know today, has been around for much longer than we thought.” What made the bubonic plague so deadly in Europe, as well as the Eastern Roman empire in 541 AD and epidemics that swept through China in the late 1800s, was its ability to hitch a ride on fleas. These fleas transmitted the disease to rats and were therefore able to spread quickly across a given area and infect humans by biting them. Although Bronze Age samples have previously been discovered with evidence of infection by similar microbes, those did not have the pandemic potential of microbes found in the Russian specimens. “Our Y. pestis isolates from around 4,000 years ago possessed all the genetic characteristics required for efficient flea transmission of plague to rodents, humans and other mammals,” explained Dr Maria Spyrou, who was the first author of the study. As transport and trade networks were already beginning to emerge throughout the region during this era, it is likely the highly infectious disease would have spread easily.