We may have pinpointed the event that started modern Y. pestis epidemics. Steam Pirate.

Did the Black Death give birth to modern plagues?

Peter Reeves, University of Sydney

Could contemporary plague outbreaks such as those that have hit Peru and the USA have their origins in the medieval era? It would seem so.

A paper published in Nature today reports a genome sequence taken from bacterial remains of the teeth of victims buried in London’s East Smithfield cemetery. The area was used in the 14th century to cope with the large number of dead bodies amassed during the first outbreak of the great plague, or Black Death.

It has long been thought – and now shown – that the plague was caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis.

The work, by Kirsten Bos of McMaster University and an international group of scientists, has the potential to help us better understand contemporary outbreaks of plague across the world.

Repeat offender

Historically, the bubonic plague came in three waves.

The first was in the Mediterranean regions in 541 A.D. and is known as the Plague of Justinian. The wave of medieval plague, better known as the Black Death, hit Europe between 1348 and 1350, and is said to have claimed an estimated 30–50% of the European population.

After about 100 years this plague died out, but reappeared in China in the 1800s – this third wave is still responsible for 2,000 cases annually worldwide.

Image of the East Smithfield cemetery excavation (1986-88). Museum of London.
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Peter Reeves does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

University of Sydney provides funding as a member of The Conversation AU.