History’s Most Infamous Plague Has Been Tormenting Humanity For Way Longer Than We Thought

Published June 11, 2018
Updated August 7, 2019

Skeletons uncovered in Russia prove that the plague believed to be responsible for medieval Europe's Black Death is actually at least 3,800 years old.

Russia Bubonic Plague Burial

V.V. Kondrashin & V.A. Tsybin/SpyrouThe recently uncovered remains of two plague victims in Mikhaylovka, Russia.

It’s perhaps the most infamous deadly infection in human history, and it turns out that scientists had its origins all wrong.

When the Black Death believed to be caused by bubonic plague hit Europe in the 1340s, it claimed an estimated 25 million lives, then as much as 60 percent of the continent’s total population. But while this outbreak of the plague has remained the most well-known, the disease had actually been wreaking havoc on humankind for about 2,000 years before that point — or so scientists thought.

A new discovery shows that experts had actually been about 1,000 years off in their estimates regarding the age of the plague.

Two skeletons recently found inside tombs in Mikhaylovka, Russia contained traces of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes the plague. And these Bronze Age skeletons are about 3,800 years old, an entire millennium older than the supposed origin mark of the plague.

The discovery, published in Nature Communications on June 8, 2018, changes the origin of the disease as we know it.

“Contrary to previous studies suggesting that Y. pestis was unable to cause disease during that time, we provide evidence that bubonic plague has been affecting humans for at least 4,000 years,” Maria Spyrou told Inverse. Spyrou is a co-author of the study and an ancient DNA researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany.

“We have recently come to realize that the Bronze Age was a period of massive population turnovers in Eurasia,” Spyrou said. “And human movements during this time may have been facilitated by the spread of infectious disease.”

Black Death Burial

Wikimedia CommonsA 14th-century Belgian rendering that depicts citizens burying victims of the Black Death.

The researchers — who are in the midst of a larger investigation into Yersinia pestis — suggest that there were several lineages of the bacterium during the Bronze Age, with some of them persevering over time and even still in existence today.

There are indeed still about seven cases of the plague reported each year in the U.S., while some regions in Africa have seen more than 1,000 reported cases over the last decade. Of course, these numbers pale in comparison to the tens of millions killed during the sixth-century outbreak in the Eastern Roman Empire, the Black Death outbreak of medieval Europe, and the plague centered on China and India in the late 19th century.

In each of these cases, the plague was largely believed to have first been transmitted to humans from fleas and rats. Once infected, humans would experience a slew of symptoms including fever, vomiting, gangrene, and bleeding below the skin before succumbing to death, which occurred in at least 30 percent of cases, within about ten days.

But modern prevention, detection, and treatment methods have made the threat of plague-related death lower than ever. It just turns out, as the newly-unearthed skeletons prove, that it was a longer road to get to this point than we’d thought.

Next, read about the disturbing symptoms of the Black Death. Then, have a look at some of the most interesting diseases to have ever afflicted humankind.

Kara Goldfarb
Kara Goldfarb is a writer living in New York City.