the mystery of its geographical origin solved thanks to DNA

The great epidemic of 1346 killed at the time half of the European population. Researchers discover that the disease has taken root in Central Asia, more precisely in Kyrgyzstan.

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One of history’s greatest mysteries finally solved. The origin of the Black Death, which decimated a large part of the European population around 1346 during the Middle Ages, was established in Central Asia, in present-day Kyrgyzstan.

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Archaeologists studied the teeth of skeletons buried on the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul in 1338-1339. The date was indicated on the tombstones. The researchers detected the plague bacillus in the DNA of these teeth, explains forensic scientist Philippe Charlier: “It is indeed the plague which is at the origin of the bubonic plague and of the second pandemic which affected the whole world at the very end of the Middle Ages.indicates the archaeo-anthropologist at the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris. We knew it was located in this region but we hesitated to know if it was on the borders of China, Siberia, the Black Sea or the Caucasus. It is not asked for the village or the valley but really the region of origin, which has been found and which is Kyrgyzstan.”

It is therefore the same strain of the plague that then swept through Africa and Europe. The great epidemic of the Black Death which killed seven to eight years later half of the European population. But how are the researchers sure that these graves in Kyrgyzstan contain the corpses of all the first victims? “When we make genetic extractions on ancient infectious agents, we quite often provide a phylogenetic tree when the DNA is well preserved”, flashes Philippe Charlier. This makes it possible to make a kind of genealogical tree of these infectious agents where we can see how they have mutated over time and their movements in the different regions of the world, explains the medical examiner:

“The strain that was found in Kyrgyzstan is really at the base of this family tree. It’s really a kind of common ancestor to all the plague samples that we have found, to all these strains of archaeological plague .”

Philippe Charlier, archaeo-anthropologist

at franceinfo

Since Kyrgyzstan was on the Silk Road, one of the main trade and traffic routes at the time, the plague then traveled west, notably via humans, but also lice, rat fleas . As for knowing which animal contaminated the first men in Kyrgyzstan, the researchers lean this time rather for the marmot hypothesis.

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