The “Black Death” Bacterium Began Its Rampage in China

By Andrew Moseman | November 1, 2010 4:05 pm

PlagueMapThree times the plague has appeared in deadly force. And all three times, scientists have found, the disease-bearing bacteria originated in China and spread across the world through different routes.

The plague’s most famous appearance came as the Black Death in 14th century Europe, when it wiped out nearly a third of the population. But it also struck as the Justinian Plague in the Byzantine Empire of the 6th century, and a less severe outbreak spread around the world and reached the American mainland in 1900 (see map above). This week in the journal Nature Genetics, Mark Achtman and colleagues rebuilt the evolutionary history of the bacterium Yersinia pestis, the cause of bubonic plague, and traced all three major waves of plague back to a starting point in China.

By looking at genetic variations in living strains of Yersinia pestis, Dr. Achtman’s team has reconstructed a family tree of the bacterium. By counting the number of genetic changes, which clock up at a generally steady rate, they have dated the branch points of the tree, which enables the major branches to be correlated with historical events. [The New York Times]

That analysis pointed to a common ancestor of the three strains that would have existed more than 2,000 years ago. Says Achtman:

“We do not know, however, how the Black Death travelled to Europe. Historical records say that it reached Italy via sailors coming from the Caspian Sea, but how it got to the Caspian we do not know.” Dr Achtman played down the possibility that the Black Death may have been carried into Europe by the caravans of the Silk Route. “Our dating suggests the plague along the Silk Route was relatively recent, probably after the Black Death,” he said. [The Telegraph]

And why China, anyway?

The likely origin of the plague in China has nothing to do with its people or crowded cities, Dr. Achtman said. The bacterium has no interest in people, whom it slaughters by accident. Its natural hosts are various species of rodent such as marmots and voles, which are found throughout China. [The New York Times]

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Image: University College Cork (the spread of the third wave of plague, beginning in 1894 in Hong Kong)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Living World
  • ross

    Another reason that I’ve heard to play down the Silk Road route is that the bacteria favored the brown rat, which tends not to range far from coastal regions. A Silk Road vector would require the hosts to stay alive for long periods of inland travel.

  • Sherlow

    Perhaps the bacterium came to Europe in the 14th century on the Chinese ships which visited there periodically for trade. The Chinese were well know sailors who travelled throughout Asia and set up trading posts throughout their trading empire. It is quite possible they travelled to Europe to check out trading possibilities which may have resulted in bringing the plaque with them on one of their stops along the way.

  • Brian Too

    Very cool that we can go back and say something important about an event that was epochal in European history. Something that was feared, mysterious, and largely disappeared before the advent of modern medicine and science.

    But now there’s a question. Why don’t we hear more about the impact of plague upon China and the intervening territories?

  • Dragon

    Chinese may not have had cats along with their ships, as some European ships did.

  • mtm

    >why China
    Mongol invasion and massacres left cities clogged with human corpses. Ideal breeding ground really.

  • delta9

    If you wonder why China…..Look to the yellow river, that’s where scientist go when new diseases appear. Whats in near the yellow river..that is ideal breeding grounds for all sorts of fun stuff.

  • brownyneal

    By the 1300s the Mongol Empire extended across most of Asia and into Eastern Europe. In the mid 1300s it collapsed because of the plague. The Mongols wealth was based on trade and they maintained trade routes and way stations for traders across Asia. The reason why Macro Polo was able to go to China was because the Mongols had consolidated the trade routes and it operated under a single system.

    The Mongols pick up the plague in their trade, possible from incursions into IndoChina. In 1328, the Mongol ruling family underwent a large number of successions. Perhaps an indication of plague. By 1331, 90 percent of the residents of what is now Hopei Province died of plague. By 1351 half to 2/3 of east Asians died of plague.

    The plague spread among the Mongol trade routes, wiping out whole populations in some of the trading stations. This shut down the trade route, isolated the Mongol Empire into smaller units and disrupted trade. It basically ended their empire.

    The plague spread to Constantinople and from their by ship to Italy. The plague had already devastated much of Asia before it ever reached Europe. Western Europe at the time was mystified about the origins, but a reading of Asian history helps put the pieces together of the plague origins and its movement.

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