The Black Death, caused by the bacterium Y. pestis, was the initial wave of a nearly 500-year-long pandemic termed the second plague pandemic and is one of the largest infectious disease catastrophes in human history. Estimated to have claimed the lives of up to 60% of the western Eurasian population over its eight-year course, the Black Death had a profound demographic and socioeconomic impact in all affected areas, with the European historical record being the most extensively studied resource until now
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 consequences.
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 Kyrgyzstan.
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 individuals.
The inscription is translated as ‘In the Year 1649, and it was the Year of the Tiger, in Turkic Bars. This is the tomb of the believer Sanmaq. [He] died of pestilence.
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.