Researchers In Sweden Have Unearthed The Oldest Strain Of Plague Found Hidden In A 5,000-Year-Old Grave

The most ancient strain of the plague has been discovered at the site of Frälsegården in Sweden and may have caused the mass migration of New Stone Age people from the east into Europe.

Man and women with the bubonic plague.
Everett Historical / Shutterstock

The most ancient strain of the plague has been discovered at the site of Frälsegården in Sweden and may have caused the mass migration of New Stone Age people from the east into Europe.

In a tomb in Sweden that is very close to 5,000-years-old, researchers have discovered what is believed to be the most ancient strain of plague, which is technically the bacterium that is known as Yersinia pestis. It has been suggested that this very early outbreak of plague may have helped to contribute to what was a large and very abrupt migration into Europe as people departed the east in droves during the New Stone Age, or Neolithic Decline.

As Live Science reported, this remarkable discovery occurred after scientists began to study large DNA databases for prehistoric deaths that may have been caused by infections.

Researchers turned their attention to the site of Frälsegården in Sweden, with previous excavation work here showing that there had been 78 burials, all of whom had died over a time span of around 200 years. Because there had been so many deaths here over such a short period of time, researchers were intrigued as this suggested that some sort of epidemic must surely have occurred here.

Scientists were not wrong in their assumption and were able to verify that the oldest strain of plague was present in a tomb in Frälsegården, Sweden. The woman in question who was studied would have been about 20-years-old at the time of her death, and it was discovered that she had inherited a genetic mutation that could bring about the dreaded pneumonic plague, which is the most deadly form of plague known.

According to the Guardian, Simon Rasmussen, from the University of Copenhagen, explained that this outbreak of plague in Sweden is the most ancient one that scientists are aware of.

“This is the earliest strain of the plague that we know about, and it probably played a big role in the decline of the population. You suddenly have this big outbreak and a lot of people are going to die.”

It is Rasmussen’s theory that the plague may have arisen 6,000 years ago in areas like Romania, Ukraine, and Moldova, and that in large communities like the one at Frälsegården, humans would have been particularly susceptible to the disease, given their close proximity to animals and the conditions in which they were living which were far from sanitary.

As Rasmussen noted, “This is the classic, textbook example of what is needed for new pathogens to develop.”

In the new study on the strain of plague that was found in the Swedish tomb, scientists suggested that once the plague emerged in large settlements, it would have swiftly spread very far and also very wide.

Additionally, with the creation of the horse-drawn cart which was so crucial to early trade, this may have caused what was an abrupt decline in Neolithic culture as the plague spread quickly, causing huge settlements to be deserted, but not before they were thoroughly burned first. This, therefore, may have caused a great many people to have left their eastern homes and moved into Europe, as Rasmussen suggested.

“We know that there was this decline in the population in neolithic times and that made it possible for people to migrate into Europe. When that happened, it completely changed the genetic makeup of the early Europeans. It turned Europeans into what they are today.”

The new study on the discovery of the oldest strain of plague that was found in a 5,000-year-old tomb in Sweden has been published in Cell.