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The ancient origins of the Black Death can be traced to a lake in Central Asia


BERLIN (AP) — Scientists in Europe say they have pinpointed the origins of the Black Death, a bacterial plague that wiped out half the continent’s population in the 14th century.

The findings contradict other theories that the disease, which caused repeated outbreaks in the early 19th century and also left its mark in the Middle East and North Africa, might have first emerged in China.

Building on the work of historian Phil Slavin of the University of Stirling in Scotland, who suggested that the appearance of the disease might be linked to an unusual rise in deaths in a Central Asian city in 1338-1339, the researchers examined the DNA of the bodies found there.

They found genetic traces of the Yersinia pestis bacterium in people who had been buried with tombstones in reference to a “pestilence” at the site by Lake Issyk Kul, in what is now Kyrgyzstan.

In a paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature, the researchers detail how the fingerprint reveals that the tension that devastated the ancient trading community at Issyk Kul was the precursor to many others that arose around that time.

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“We found that ancient strains from Kyrgyzstan are positioned exactly at the node of this massive diversification event,” said Maria Spyrou, a researcher in disease history at the University of Tübingen in Germany and lead author of the report. “In other words, we found the source strain of the Black Death and even know its exact date (1338).”

The disease, which is transmitted by rats and their fleas, is known to have finally reached the Sicilian port of Messina on trading ships arriving from the Black Sea in 1347.

Sharon DeWitte, a biological anthropologist at the University of South Carolina who was not involved in the study, said it was exciting to have DNA evidence to support the earlier theory that the disease arose in Central Asia.

“This study is important because very precisely dated burials allow a direct study of the strain as it existed at the time of the initial appearance of the Black Death,” he said.

While the authors acknowledge that it is theoretically possible that the bacteria originated elsewhere and spread to Central Asia without significant change, the evidence suggests this is unlikely, DeWitte said.

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