Science News unearths the 5,000-year-old remains of a Scandinavian woman who seems to have been the oldest known victim of the Black Death:
DNA extracted from the woman’s teeth comes from a newly identified ancient strain of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes plague, the oldest ever found. The woman’s bones, which date from 5,040 to 4,867 years ago, were found nearly 20 years ago in a mass grave at an ancient farming site in Sweden.
Teeth from an adult male in the same grave contain traces of the same plague variant, say evolutionary geneticist Simon Rasmussen of the University of Copenhagen and colleagues.
Comparisons of the newly found Y. pestis strain with other ancient and modern strains suggest that a plague epidemic emerged more than 5,000 years ago in densely populated farming communities in southeastern Europe. Then the plague spread elsewhere, including to Scandinavia, via trade routes, Rasmussen’s team concludes. That ancient epidemic apparently contributed to sharp population declines in Europe that began as early as 8,000 years ago.
Based on a statistical model of how the bacterium evolved, the scientists estimate that the Scandinavian strain probably diverged from other Y. pestis forms around 5,700 years ago. A Eurasian plague variant previously dated to between 4,800 and 3,700 years ago — the oldest known until now — originated around 5,300 years ago, the team calculates.