Black Death: In a study published in the journal Science on June 15, researchers claim that the disease originated in modern day northern Kyrgyzstan around 1338–1339 – about 7-8 years before it devastated large parts of the world.
Where did the Black Death – one of the deadliest pandemics in the history of mankind – originate from? This is a question that has haunted historians for centuries. A group of scholars from various disciplines have now tried to solve this much talked about mystery.
In a study published in the journal Science on June 15, researchers claim that the disease originated in modern day northern Kyrgyzstan around 1338–1339 – about 7-8 years before it devastated large parts of the world.
What was the Black Death?
The term Black Death refers to the bubonic plague that spread to Western Asia, North Africa, the Middle East and Europe in 1346–53. Most scholars agree that the Black Death, which killed millions of people, was caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis and spread by fleas carried by rodent hosts.
Microorganisms Y. pestis spread to human populations, who at some point transmitted it to others through a vector of human fleas or directly through the respiratory system.
Contemporaries writing about the epidemic often described buboa (hardened, swollen lymph nodes) as the distinctive clinical feature. The Florentine chronicler Matteo Villani referred to the disease in 1348 as ‘mortal disease of buboes’ and ‘epidemic of buboes’.
The onset of symptoms was followed by high fever and vomiting of blood. Most of the victims died within 2-7 days after the initial infection.
How do researchers pinpoint the origin of the Black Death?
In the late 19th century, excavations of two Christian cemeteries near Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan revealed a trading community affected by an unknown disease in 1338–1339. Historian Philip Slavin, one of the researchers involved in the current study, examined the tomb, on which Syriac inscriptions state that the victims died from an unknown pestilence or “epidemic”.
The researchers then extracted DNA from the teeth of seven people who were buried in the cemetery and Y. The genetic traces of pestis bacterium were found.
The extracted DNA was compared to bacterial DNA collected from other plague victims in Europe. According to the Wall Street Journal, researchers found that the epidemic-causing Y. pestis strain was a direct ancestor of the Black Death.
From cemeteries in Kyrgyzstan Y. pestis genomes together, the researchers found a single plague strain that could be placed at the beginning of the Black Death outbreak, before it spread to Europe years later. “We have found the tension at the source of the Black Death and we also know its exact date (year 1338),” said the report’s lead author, Maria Spirou.
Why is the new discovery important?
The geographical origin point of the plague has been debated for centuries. Some historians have argued that the plague originated in China, and was spread throughout Europe by Italian traders, who first entered the continent in trading caravans through Crimea.
Another disputed theory, based on a 1348 memoir by an Italian notary of Piacenza, argues that the Mongol army threw plague-stricken bodies into the city during the Siege of Kafa (Crimea) and spread the disease.
Historian Mary Fissell told The New York Times that if the latest research is correct, it would mean that the plague spread through trade routes and not, as some historians have argued, through war a century earlier.
Why this plague was called the Black Death?
It is generally believed that the term Black Death derives its name from the black marks that appeared on the bodies of plague victims. However, historians argued that the term, which emerged only centuries later, had less to do with the clinical symptoms of the disease, and how European authors understood the epidemic after the 19th century.
In the 14th century, the pandemic was referred to as the ‘Great Epidemic’ or ‘Great Death’ because of the demographic havoc.
Historian Nukhet Varlik argues that the term Black Death was coined by European writers in the 19th century, which with the passage of time became widely accepted. The German physician Justus Friedrich Karl Hecker is credited with universalizing the term in his 1832 book Der Schwarz Tod (Black Death), which was also translated into other languages. He presented the Black Death as a unique plague, unlike any other disease that had come before it.
Worlick argues that the black of the world also took on a dark, gloomy emotional tone, due to the sheer amount of plague deaths.
How deadly was the spread, what were the consequences?
Due to the lack of comprehensive historical data from that time, it is difficult to know the exact number of casualties. Norwegian historian Ole J Benedicto, who wrote extensively on the disease, estimated that about 60–65 percent of Europe’s population, or 52 million people, died as a result of the plague.
Describing his experience from Siena in 1348, the Italian historian Agnolo di Tura wrote: “Great pits were dug and piled deep with hordes of the dead. And they died in the hundreds day and night.”
The dramatic reduction in population coincided with enormous economic and social changes in Europe. With less labor force available, wages increased, leaving the common people with a high economic surplus.
The Black Death also increased the religious persecution of Jews, who were accused of spreading the infection.