The Origins of the Black Death
Above: The Dance of Death by Michael Wolgemut, 1493
Scientists may have discovered the origins of the Black Death, the fourteenth century pandemic which killed over 25 million people. The plague wreaked havoc in Europe though its origins have long been linked to Asian grasslands, where a warming climate spurred large movements of rodents who were vectors for the disease. While the exact beginnings of the plague have remained mysterious over the centuries, a new study offers a possible look at origins of the disease.
A team of geneticists headed up by Dr. Maria Spyrou of the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen have examined teeth from remains buried in cemeteries in modern day Kyrgyzstan, all of whose graves bear the inscription that they died from a pestilence. The teeth were powdered and traces of Yersinia pestis, the bacteria behind the Black Death, were discovered within. While a local surge of disease in 1338 has been known since these cemeteries were excavated over a century ago, only now do we have genetic proof that the Black Death was responsible.
This discovery is the closest we've come to a definitive ground zero for the Black Death. The strain that killed the cemeteries’ inhabitants is the ancestor of all the known variations found in Europe during the Black Death, as well as the strains of the plague that persist to this day. This discovery is a watershed moment in the understanding of the transmission and origin of the bubonic plague, as well as a good reminder to always brush your teeth.
Here's a link to the full study!