Patient zero of Black Death found
New evidence has suggested a man who died 5300 years ago in Latvia was infected with the earliest-known strain of the plague that caused the Black Death.
Waves of the plague swept through Europe for several centuries from the 1300s, causing millions of deaths.
“Up to now this is the oldest-identified plague victim we have,” Dr Ben Krause-Kyora of the University of Kiel in Germany said of the remains.
The man was buried with three others at a Neolithic burial site in Latvia near the River Salac, which connects to the Baltic Sea.
The research, published in Cell Reports, involved the sequencing of the DNA from the bones and teeth of the four individuals.
When the bodies were tested for bacteria and viruses, the researchers were surprised to find one hunter-gatherer - a man in his twenties - was infected with an ancient strain of the plague, caused by the Yersinia pestis bacterium.
“He was most likely bitten by a rodent, got the primary infection of Yersinia pestis and died a couple of days [later] - maybe a week later - from the septic shock,” said Dr Krause-Kyora.
The researchers suggest that this strain appeared about 7000 years ago at the same time that agriculture started to appear in central Europe.
They also believe the bacterium may have sporadically jumped from animals to humans and that it became better at infecting humans over time, evolving into the form known as the bubonic plague.
The research has been welcomed by other experts, though it doesn’t rule out the hypothesis that the disease was spreading throughout Europe at the time.
Though the disease is still around today, it is treatable with antibiotics if caught early.
Images: Dominik Göldner / BGAEU