In a time when news headlines, academic journals, and science websites sharing the latest discoveries and theories about SARS-CoV-2 and its many variants demand our attention, it may seem counterintuitive to shift our focus to the past to look for insights. Surprising for some, there is much to learn from the ‘original’ pandemic — the bubonic plague. Also known as the Black Death, an outbreak of the Yersinia pestis bacterium that struck Eurasia at the height of the 14th century and decimated close to 60% of the continent’s population as it traveled from Central Asia to Europe along an essential trade route: the Silk Road.
While times have changed dramatically in terms of health and medicine (from routine handwashing to mRNA vaccines and many points in between) the bubonic plague’s far-reaching impact makes it an example of an early global pandemic and an interesting point of study for historians and epidemiologists alike. As governments and health agencies remove restrictions and deaths attributed to COVID-19 continue to decline, we may be far enough removed to look to other eras of human history and compare our recent experience with the original plague to gain insights, and perhaps shed light on the future.
A Quick Glance at History
Despite the half-millennia since the bubonic plague ravaged Eurasia, researchers continue to ponder and explore the possible origins of the pestilence. Many researchers maintained that its provenance was East Asia, but recent discoveries have since shaken up that assumption. Economic and environmental historian Philip Slavin, an associate professor at the University of Stirling in Scotland, thinks we may have found our answer. In 2017, Slavin studied records from a series of burial sites in Kyrgyzstan, originally excavated in the 1800s, with an unusually high number of tombstones dated to 1338 and 1339, with inscriptions written in the Syriac language. His research showed that of the 467 burial sites that were dated, 118 of them were from 1338 and 1339. That disproportionate number was a red flag that something unusual had happened, and thanks to the lens of hindsight, Slavin saw a possible connection between this anomaly and the bubonic plague which started in Europe only seven or eight years later.
Fortunately, the remains of 30 individuals buried in the Kyrgyzstan grave sites had been taken to the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography in St. Petersburg, Russia after the excavation.
What We Learned
Slavin assembled a team, headed by Maria Spyrou, study co-author and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Tübingen in Germany and Professor Dr. Johannes Krause, a co-author and paleogeneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. The research team was granted permission to extract DNA from the remains to try to understand how they had died.
In studying the DNA, the team identified the Yersinia pestis bacterium, the strain that would go on to mutate and evolve, not only into the Black Death but also into modern plague strains. Their conclusions came from finding a related strain in modern-day rodents such as marmots, living in the Tian Shan mountains.
Such a discovery, Slavin and his associates assert, will reshape our understanding of the evolution of diseases and our past. Krause likens it to the search for the origins of the coronavirus, stating, “It is like finding the place where all the strains come together, like with coronavirus where we have Alpha, Delta, Omicron all coming from this strain in Wuhan.” While research must continue, the discovery allows us to appreciate how modern genetics and science shed light on the past while offering such promise for our future.
What We Hope to Know
Slavin foresees the potential impact of the study, stating, “It is important to see how these diseases develop evolutionarily and historically … to not treat different strains as isolated phenomena, but as something that is situated within a much wider evolutionary picture.” Slavin and his associates believe that by investigating
the mysterious origins of a disease so widespread and dangerous, we can find answers to the mysteries of the past and prepare for the pandemics of tomorrow.
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