An international team of scientists led by the University of Kiel (Germany) has discovered the oldest known strain of the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which caused the fearsome bubonic plague that devastated 14th-century Europe, killing tens of millions of people.
The finding occurred during the DNA study of the remains of four people who were buried in the archaeological site of Riņņukalns, in present-day Latvia, about 5,000 years ago. The strain was found in the bones of a hunter-gatherer named RV 2039, details in a release University.
The study, published in the scientific journal Cell Reports, revealed that, contrary to what was previously assumed, the bacterium ‘Yersinia pestis’ already infected humans at the beginning of the Neolithic, but during the early stages of its evolution, it had a rather weak contagion capacity, so that the spread of the lethal disease could not reach epidemic proportions.
However, over the next 4,300 years, the strain evolved to become much more lethal to humans, culminating in the catastrophic Black Death that ravaged Eurasia and North Africa.
“From an archaeological perspective, this finding is important, because it suggests that infections with the plague bacteria did not lead to large-scale transformative social or political changes in the Neolithic,” explained Professor Johannes Müller, director of the Institute for Pre and Protohistory. from the University of Kiel.
Scientists conclude that research on ancient human DNA and pathogens can provide more information on modern diseases, such as chronic inflammatory conditions.