Black Death was season two of a three-part series of misery

10 Jun 20168 Shares

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What have the sixth century Plague of Justinian, the Black Plague and the Chinese Plague got in common? They each share the same, single strain of deadly bacteria.

Yersinia pestis is one of the deadliest pathogens in human history, killing off half of Europe in the 14th and 15th century.

It’s so deadly, in fact, that it caused a similar travesty in the Roman Empire in the sixth and eighth centuries, as well as a recent equivalent in China at the end of the 19th century.

A team of researchers from the Max Planck Institute claim to have confirmed a passage taking the strain throughout Europe and Asia over the centuries, with a report published in Cell Host & Microbe detailing their findings.

It has been debated in the past where Y. pestis kept coming from – with the numerous plagues often centuries apart – however, this paper aims to link it all together.

This is a photo of a mass burial site in Ellwangen, Germany, via Rainer Weiss

This is a photo of a mass burial site in Ellwangen, Germany, via Rainer Weiss

Testing bone samples from 178 individual remains in mass graves in Spain, Germany and Russia (dated at between 1300-1627), the researchers sequenced the genomes of the three different Y. pestis strains.

Comparing them to older and more recent examples, they established that there was no difference between the Black Death strain and that of earlier plagues.

More tellingly, it was also identical to that which struck China at the end of the 19th century.

Also, the strains in London and Barcelona were from around the same time, meaning the Black Death plague probably came through Europe in one big wave of misery, rather than several stages.

The paper suggests a connection between the Black Death and the modern-day plague pandemic as well as the persistence of plague in Europe between the 14th and 18th centuries, via Spyrou et al./Cell Host & Microbe 2016

The paper suggests a connection between the Black Death and the modern-day plague pandemic as well as the persistence of plague in Europe between the 14th and 18th centuries, via Spyrou et al./Cell Host & Microbe 2016

“Our most significant finding revealed a link between the Black Death and modern plague,” said Johannes Krause, one of the co-senior study authors.

“Though several plague lineages exist in China today, only the lineage that caused the Black Death several centuries earlier left south-east Asia in the late 19th-century pandemic and rapidly achieved a near worldwide distribution.”

Main plague burial site image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt is senior communications and context executive at NDRC. He previously worked as a journalist with Silicon Republic.

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