Researchers analysed teeth, a rich source of DNA, from seven people buried in cemeteries of communities called Burana and Kara-Djigach, obtaining plague DNA from three in Kara-Djigach.

The Black Death was the deadliest pandemic on record.
The Black Death was the deadliest pandemic on record. (AP Archive)

Researchers have pinpointed an area in northern Kyrgyzstan as the launching point for the Black Death that killed tens of millions of people in the mid-14th century.

Ancient DNA from bubonic plague victims buried in cemeteries on the old Silk Road trade route in Central Asia helped solve the enduring mystery on Wednesday.

The DNA was taken from the Yersinia pestis plague bacterium from the teeth of three women buried in a medieval Nestorian Christian community in the foothills of the Tian Shan mountains who perished in 1338-1339. 

The earliest deaths documented elsewhere in the pandemic were in 1346.

Reconstructing the pathogen's genome showed that this strain gave rise to the one that caused the Black Death that mauled Europe, Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and most plague strains existing today.

"Our finding that the Black Death originated in Central Asia in the 1330s puts centuries-old debates to rest," said historian Philip Slavin, co-author of the study published in the journal Nature.

The Silk Road was an overland route for caravans carrying a panoply of goods back and forth from China through the sumptuous cities of Central Asia to points including the Byzantine capital and Persia. 

It also may have served as a conduit of death if the pathogen hitched a ride on the caravans.

"We know that trade was likely a determining factor to the dispersal of plague into Europe during the beginning of the Black Death," said study lead author Maria Spyrou of the University of Tubingen in Germany.

"It is reasonable to hypothesise that similar processes determined the spread of the disease from Central Asia to the Black Sea between 1338 and 1346," Spyrou added.

READ MORE: China's Inner Mongolia reports fresh bubonic plague case

'High mobility and fast spread'

The Black Death killed 50 percent to 60 percent of the population in parts of Western Europe and 50 percent in the Middle East, combining for about 50-60 million deaths, Slavin said. 

An "unaccountable number" of people also died in the Caucasus, Iran and Central Asia, Slavin added.

"Already in medieval times we see the high mobility and fast spread of a human pathogen," said study co-author Johannes Krause, director of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany. 

"We should not underestimate the potential of pathogens to spread around the world from rather remote locations, likely due to a zoonotic event" — an infectious disease jumping from animals to people.

The pandemic originated in wild rodents, most likely marmots, a type of ground squirrel, Slavin said. Rodents tagging along in caravans may have helped spread it, but other transmission mechanisms may have included human fleas and lice.

"We found that the closest living relatives of that Y. pestis strain that gave rise to the Black Death are still found in marmots in that region today," Krause said.

READ MORE: How did Ottoman society deal with the plague?

Source: Reuters