Plague may have caused die-offs of ancient Siberians

Bacterium DNA was found in two skeletons dating to roughly 4,000 years ago

Lake Baikal

An analysis of ancient Siberians’ DNA suggests that the plague bacterium, Yersinia pestis, infected people living just west of Lake Baikal (shown) by around 4,400 years ago.

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Ancient people brought the plague to Siberia by about 4,400 years ago, which may have led to collapses in the population there, a new genetic analysis suggests.

That preliminary finding raises the possibility that plague-induced die offs influenced the genetic structure of northeast Asians who trekked to North America starting perhaps 5,500 years ago. If the result holds up, it, along with other newly uncovered insights into human population dynamics in the region, would unveil a more complex ancestry among those ancient travelers than has usually been assumed.

A team led by evolutionary geneticists Gülşah Merve Kilinç and Anders Götherström, both of Stockholm University, extracted DNA from the remains of 40 human skeletons previously excavated in parts of eastern Siberia. Among those samples, DNA from Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes plague, was found in two ancient Siberians, the researchers report January 6 in Science Advances. One person lived around 4,400 years ago. The other dated to roughly 3,800 years ago.

It’s unclear how the plague bacterium first reached Siberia or whether it caused widespread infections and death, Götherström says. But he and his colleagues found that genetic diversity in their ancient samples of human DNA declined sharply from around 4,700 to 4,400 years ago, possibly the result of population collapse.

The new data coincide with evidence reported in June 2020 in Cell of Y. pestis DNA in two ancient individuals from eastern Siberia’s Lake Baikal region, dating to around 4,500 years ago.

The plague may well have reached Siberia by roughly 4,500 years ago, at a time when Y. pestis infected people inhabiting other parts of Eurasia (SN: 10/22/15), says evolutionary geneticist Hendrik Poinar of McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada who did not participate in the new study.

But it’s possible that the ancient Siberians were infected with a version of Y. pestis that wasn’t virulent. If so, the bacterium wouldn’t have killed enough people to alter the genetic structure of Siberians. Genetic data from only two individuals provides too little evidence to confirm that they possessed a virulent strain of Y. pestis, Poinar says.

The genetic findings do provide a glimpse of a series of previously unknown ancient population shifts in that region. Ancient individuals included in the new research dated from around 16,900 years ago, shortly after the last Ice Age peaked, to 550 years ago. The researchers compared those ancient Siberians’ DNA to DNA from present-day humans in different parts of the world and to previous samples of ancient human DNA — mainly from Europe, Asia and North America. The analyses showed that despite Siberia’s harsh climate, groups near Lake Baikal and regions further east mixed with various populations in and outside of Siberia from the Late Stone Age up to medieval times.

The two plague-carrying Siberians, in particular, came from regions that had experienced major population transformations during much of the sampled time period, the researchers say. Those events could have included migrations of plague-carrying people from outside Siberia. For instance, the 4,400-year-old skeleton was found just west of Lake Baikal, a region that witnessed the emergence of several distinct genetic groups — with roots mainly further to the west and southwest of Lake Baikal — between around 8,980 and 560 years ago.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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