Black Death origin: Where did the Bubonic plague originate? Was it in China?

The Black Death, otherwise known as the bubonic plague, is one of the most famous diseases in the world. Centuries ago, the virus decimated a significant portion of the global population, tearing through countries and cities during the Middle Ages. At the time, it ignited panic and confusion, with a litany of theories building up about its origin, and even modern science has had trouble forming a complete history of the virus.

Where did the bubonic plague originate?

The bubonic plague is one of several diseases caused by the bacteria yersinia pestis.

The virus spreads via blood-sucking insects such as fleas, which pass it on to rodent hosts, and eventually humans.

Scientists have pinpointed the origin of the disease to potentially thousands of years in the past.


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Research suggests Yersinia Pestis existed millennia ago, and a 2018 study found evidence of the disease in an ancient Swedish tomb dated to 3,000 BCE.

The first written symptoms of the disease appeared in the fragmented works of Roman doctor Rufus of Ephesus.

His accounts suggest the disease was present in the Roman Empire before the reign of Justinian I, which started in 527 CE.

While not the most famous, the first bubonic plague pandemic was identified as the Plague of Justinian, which ripped through the world from 541–542 CE.

The plague pandemic of the 14th century tore through China at the height of the Mongol invasion.

One modern theory suggests climate change caused plague-bearing rodents to flee grasslands into the country’s densely populated cities.

European outbreaks were eventually spread by the booming trade network, which carried them into ports on the back of rats.

Future flare-ups caused disaster in European capitals, notably London in 1665, the year before the Great Fire.

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The plague is now contained, endemic in both rural and metropolitan areas, but primarily the former.

The US often sees outbreaks in some of its western states such as Colorado, and some African countries, China and Mongolia often see cases as well.

One 15-year-old Mongolian boy died of the disease last week, showing it remains a deadly presence where it takes root.

Antibiotics effectively treat the disease, but untreated, it has a fatality rate anywhere between 50 to 90 percent.

The symptoms of the bubonic plague include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Chills
  • Weakness
  • One or more swollen, tender and painful lymph nodes (called buboes)

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