The source of the Black Death in fourteenth-century central Eurasia



Spyrou MA, Musralina L, Gnecchi Ruscone GA, Kocher A, Borbone P, Khartanovich VI, Buzhilova A, Djansugurova L, Bos KI, Kühnert D, Haak W, Slavin P & Krause J (2022) The source of the Black Death in fourteenth-century central Eurasia. Nature, 606 (7915), pp. 718-724.

The origin of the medieval Black Death pandemic (AD 1346–1353) has been a topic of continuous investigation because of the pandemic’s extensive demographic impact and long-lasting consequences1,2. Until now, the most debated archaeological evidence potentially associated with the pandemic’s initiation derives from cemeteries located near Lake Issyk-Kul of modern-day Kyrgyzstan1,3,4,5,6,7,8,9. These sites are thought to have housed victims of a fourteenth-century epidemic as tombstone inscriptions directly dated to 1338–1339 state ‘pestilence’ as the cause of death for the buried individuals9. Here we report ancient DNA data from seven individuals exhumed from two of these cemeteries, Kara-Djigach and Burana. Our synthesis of archaeological, historical and ancient genomic data shows a clear involvement of the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis in this epidemic event. Two reconstructed ancient Y. pestis genomes represent a single strain and are identified as the most recent common ancestor of a major diversification commonly associated with the pandemic’s emergence, here dated to the first half of the fourteenth century. Comparisons with present-day diversity from Y. pestis reservoirs in the extended Tian Shan region support a local emergence of the recovered ancient strain. Through multiple lines of evidence, our data support an early fourteenth-century source of the second plague pandemic in central Eurasia.

Archaeology; Evolutionary genetics; Pathogens

Nature: Volume 606, Issue 7915

Publication date23/06/2022
Publication date online15/06/2022
Date accepted by journal25/04/2022
PublisherSpringer Science and Business Media LLC

People (1)


Professor Philip Slavin

Professor Philip Slavin

Professor, History