Ancient DNA tracks Black Death to Volga region of Russia

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In the 14th century, Black Death destroyed about 60% of the European population and spread rapidly across the Black Sea coast to Central Europe. While historical records first documented its appearance in the lower Volga region of Russia in 1346 AD, the researchers did not know if the highly lethal strain of the Yersinia pestis bacteria that caused the fatal epidemic came from a single source or was introduced to Europe more than once. By travelers carrying various plague strains from different parts of the ancient world.

Now, researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Science Jena, Germany, by analyzing 34 ancient Y. pestis genomes from the teeth of people buried in 10 places in Europe from the 14th to the 17th century (including a mass grave in Toulouse, France above). We found the oldest known evidence of this epidemic about Human History in Laishevo, in the Volga region of Russia. Researchers found a lineage Y. pestis was different from just one mutation that caused all other genomes they studied on, ancestor in Europe to death, they report today on Nature Communications.

This does not mean that the Volga region is zero for Black Death – it may have come from another place in west Asia, where scientists have not yet sampled the DNA of the ancient Y. pestis. When the plague arrived in Europe, the researchers found that one species was responsible for Black Death, from Italy to the UK. This strain also led to other Y. pestis variants that caused deadly plague outbreaks from the late 14th to the 18th centuries. This suggests that the bacterium continues locally in Europe, perhaps in rodent hosts, which later turned into various strains that caused outbreaks.

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