For centuries scientists have debated the origins of the bubonic plague, also known as the black death or the plague. The plague was a global pandemic that profoundly affected many nations’ social, economic, and religious lives. In Europe alone, 60% of the population was decimated, whereas a third of the middle eastern population succumbed to the disease.
Starting first in Crimea in 1347, the plague infected the Eurasian silk road network that connected nations and continents in trade. It was then transported and spread by black rats that lived on Genoese merchant ships resulting in the deaths of between 74 to 200 million people.
In a recently published study, scientists claimed to have identified the plague’s origins by sequencing the ancient DNA genome of the plaque-causing Yersinia pestis bacterium. The researchers achieved their breakthrough by analyzing seven-tooth specimens from medieval bodies excavated from cemeteries in the Kara –Djigach and Burana villages of Kyrgyzstan.
The study found that the bodies in the Kyrgyz cemeteries died of Yersinia Pestis bacterium strains that were the ancestors of the Majority of the Y. Pestis lineages, including the pathogens that caused the black death plaque years later.
Johannes Krause of Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, who co-led the study, stated,
“We have basically located the origin in time and space, which is really remarkable. We found not only the ancestor of the Black Death, but the ancestor of the majority of the plague strains that are circulating in the world today.”
The crippling death toll the plague caused led to labor shortages that decimated nations’ economies. As a result, wages and inflation skyrocketed. On the other hand, fanaticism and religious persecution soared as groups such as Jews and pilgrims were blamed for the tragedy caused by the plague.
Fanaticism was so unhinged that Jewish wells were poisoned while attacks on Jewish communities witnessed the massacre of 2000 Jews and the destruction of Jewish communities across Europe.
For 500 years, Europe and the Islamic world were ravaged by the plague. For instance, it’s believed that the plague was at least in one country in the Islamic world every year between 1500 and 1850. In contrast, Cairo alone suffered 50 epidemics within 150 years of the plague’s emergence.
Though scientists now know the origin of the black death, they claim that it never went away. They are worried that it may strike again in a drug-resistant form, and if that were to happen, would we handle it better than our ancestors?