Analysis of skeletal remains belonging to a man who died 5,000 years ago has revealed that he was the world’s earliest plague victim found thus far. The man, who has been named RV 2039, was a hunter-gatherer who died when he was between 20 and 30 years of age and was buried close to the Baltic Sea in Latvia. While there were four people whose remains were excavated from the area, it is believed that RV 2039 was the only one who suffered from the disease.
By analyzing the man’s teeth and bones as well as sequencing his DNA, experts found that he suffered from the plague’s bacteria that was probably connected to a lineage that evolved about 7,000 years ago shortly after the bacterium Yersina Pestis would have split from its predecessor named Yersina pseudotuberculosis. In other words, the plague bacterium was present over 2,000 years earlier than previously thought.
And what the researchers found in the man’s genes was even more astonishing as explained in a statement by Ben Krause-Kyora who is a biochemist and archaeologist at the University of Kiel in Germany, “What's so surprising is that we see already in this early strain more or less the complete genetic set of Y. pestis, and only a few genes are lacking. But even a small shift in genetic settings can have a dramatic influence on virulence.”
It is believed that the man was infected by a rodent bite – perhaps a beaver. While it is not known for certain whether or not the disease killed the man, it was present in his blood when he passed away so it’s certainly a very good possibility.
It’s also unclear how many other victims died from the plague around the same time period as the RV 2039 victim but experts do have some clues, specifically a tomb that was found in Sweden in 2019 that held 78 bodies. These individuals were from the same time period as RV 2039 and one of the skeletons (a female) revealed that she had the plague bacteria. Additionally, several other human remains have been found at different locations across Eurasia that contained the plague bacteria – all of which dated back to that same time frame. (A picture of RV 2039’s skull can be seen here.
The bacteria went on to cause some of the deadliest diseases in all of history – the Justinian Plague that happened between 542 and 750 AD (this plague was possibly the reason why the population in the Mediterranean fell by 40%); the Black Death that occurred in the 14th century and took the lives of about 25 million people (between 33% and 50% of the population in Europe); and a pandemic that started in the year 1855 in China’s Yunnan province that took the lives of more than 12 million people just in China and India.
The research was published in the journal Cell Reports where it can be read in full.