DNA from an ancient grave reveals the Black Death’s patient zero
A Knight's Tale is a classic tale of medieval adventure that follows William Thatcher (Heath Ledger) as he attempts to win wealth, fame and honor in a series of jousting tournaments. It's unclear exactly when the film is set, largely because it incorporates elements from several centuries of medieval life. However, the presence of Geoffrey Chaucer and Edward the Black Prince, who were both real people, places it sometime in the second half of the 14th century.
A deadly plague pandemic is not one of the many challenges facing Thatcher and his merry crew. But while the Black Death doesn't play a major role in the film, the mid-14th century is just around the corner when the European continent was rocked by it. Thanks to a study recently published in the journal Nature, we now know where and how it started.
In 1880, a team of Russian scientists excavated the graves of 118 people who died from an unknown disease. The tombs were located at Lake Issyk-Kul in modern-day Kyrgyzstan, and markings on the tombs have been dated to either 1338 or 1339, the exact time scholars are anticipating the Black Death. In addition, inscriptions on some tombstones point to the plague as the cause of death.
Skulls from these excavated tombs have been preserved in the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography of Peter the Great in Saint Petersburg. Before this new study, it was unclear what caused the deaths. The plague died out centuries before the advent of germ theory, and was often a hodgepodge of a range of diseases. It wasn't until Maria Spyrou and Johannes Krause from the Department of Archaeogenetics at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History got wind of the remains that they suspected they might hold the key to the creation of the Black Death.
Together with staff at the museum where the bones were stored, they tested centuries-old DNA from the pestilence victim's teeth and confirmed the presence of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes bubonic plague, in three of them.
In addition, an analysis of the bacterial DNA found it to be the most recent common ancestor, which preceded a major diversification event that started the pandemic. While this ancestral tribe was responsible for at least some of the deaths at Issyk-Kul, a little less than a decade later one of its descendants rampaged across the European continent and did so again and again for the next five centuries.
Scientists believe these 118 people carry the seeds of one of the deadliest disease pandemics in human history, which would kill at least 25 million people over the next few decades and tens of millions more centuries later. The severity of the plague even spawned an unusual palliative by Isaac Newton himself.
Similar to more modern pandemics, the evidence also supports the hypothesis that the disease first took root in nonhuman animals before making the leap to humans. Once this happened, even our medieval scale of worldwide travel allowed the disease to spread rapidly and probably find passage on ships.
While the Black Death is now largely contained -- with only about 1,000 to 2,000 reported cases worldwide each year and a mortality rate between 8% and 10% according to the World Health Organization -- the study's authors report that tribes still kill dozens of non-human animals, and all these tribes can be traced back to this one ancestor in 14th-century Kyrgyzstan.
Thus began the most intense and deadly microbial tournament in human history. At least so far it looks like we're going to win. However, we have to admit that Black Death would give the nickname to a killer knight.
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