Was Iron Age Armenia Haunted By A Plague?

In a 2015 publication, researchers did an analysis of teeth from the remains of 101 individuals that were collected from a variety of museums and archaeological excavations.  They found DNA of the bacterium that causes plague, called Yersinia pestis, in seven of these people.

Fleas that bite rodents infected with the bacteria that cause the plague can transmit the disease to people. Credit: Janice Haney Carr/CDC

The earliest sample that had plague DNA was from Bronze Age Siberia, and dated back to 2794 B.C., and the latest specimen with plague, from early Iron Age Armenia, dated back to 951 B.C. Previously, the oldest direct molecular evidence that this bacterium infected humans was only about 1,500 years old.

Apparently, the bacteria that causes plague infected the individual in Armenia, around 90 years before the establishment of the kingdom of Urartu (861 B.C.). It is unclear if many others were also infected and how big (if any) the pandemic was.

“We were able to find genuine Yersinia pestis DNA in our samples 3,000 years earlier than what had previously been shown,” said Simon Rasmussen, a lead author of the study and a bioinformatician at the Technical University of Denmark.

This skull is from an individual of the Yamnaya people, a group that moved into Central Asia in early Bronze Age (c. 5000 years ago). The group belonged to a culture that is one of the Bronze Age groups carrying Y. pestis. Credit: Natalia Shishlina
The Black Death

The Yersinia pestis bacteria was also responsible for The Black Death. The Black Death was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 75 to 200 million people in Eurasia and peaking in Europe in the years 1346–1353.


Live Science. Plague Began Infecting Humans Much Earlier Than Thought. Charles Q. Choi. October 22, 2015.


  • ABC/Reuters (29 January 2008). “Black death ‘discriminated’ between victims (ABC News in Science)”. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 3 November 2008.
  • “Health. De-coding the Black Death”. BBC. 3 October 2001. Retrieved 3 November 2008.
  • “Black Death’s Gene Code Cracked”. Wired. 3 October 2001. Retrieved 12 February 2015.



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