Great mystery of the Black Death solved, the place where the greatest pandemic in history originated

The great mystery of medicine has been solved. A team of scientists has managed to locate on the map the origin of the Black Death, the greatest pandemic in history. The origin lies in the Tian Shan Mountains region of Central Asia in the first half of the 14th century.

The journal Nature has published this study, which involved a group of scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig (Germany), the University of Tübingen (Germany) and the University of Stirling (UK). These scientists were dedicated to tracing the origins of the first strain of the bacterium that caused the Black Death, Yersinia pestis.

According to the study, the plague arrived in the mid-14th century in the Mediterranean via trading ships from the Black Sea. The Black Death spread through Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, eventually developing into a pandemic that lasted until the early 19th century. This disease caused the death of more than half of the European population.

How did they find the origin?

Previous theories already placed the origin of the Black Death in Asian areas such as China or Mongolia. Thanks to this study, it has been possible to demonstrate that the first outbreak of this pandemic was detected in this region of Central Asia, an area crossed by important trade routes of the Silk Road.

The researchers have been able to reach these conclusions thanks to the analysis of human remains discovered in two cemeteries in Tian Shan during excavations carried out almost 140 years ago. The individuals buried there died between 1338 and 1339 from an unknown epidemic, as detailed in inscriptions found on the tombstones of these niches.

Scientists suggest that the ‘Big Bang’ of the Black Death, as they have dubbed it, occurred sometime in the 14th century. It was from that time that a massive diversification of plague strains was detected, coinciding with the proliferation of the disease in Europe between 1346 and 1353.

Scientists concluded that the ancient Central Asian strain that caused the plague epidemic of 1338 and 1339 in Kyrgyzstan jumped to humans from marmot populations in this region, which act as reservoirs for the bacterium, and then mutated into different variants that spread around the world. “This strain precedes this ‘Big Bang,’ which was a fundamental evolutionary event, and any such event has to evolve from an earlier strain,” says Slavin.

The researcher makes an analogy with the coronavirus pandemic: “We have Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Omicron… Omicron evolved from Delta, and Delta evolved from Gamma. It may not be the best comparison, but what we know is that this strain preceded the Black Death.”

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