Emergence, continuity, and evolution of Yersinia pestis throughout medieval and early modern Denmark

Curr Biol. 2023 Mar 27;33(6):1147-1152.e5. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2023.01.064. Epub 2023 Feb 24.


The historical epidemiology of plague is controversial due to the scarcity and ambiguity of available data.1,2 A common source of debate is the extent and pattern of plague re-emergence and local continuity in Europe during the 14th-18th century CE.3 Despite having a uniquely long history of plague (∼5,000 years), Scandinavia is relatively underrepresented in the historical archives.4,5 To better understand the historical epidemiology and evolutionary history of plague in this region, we performed in-depth (n = 298) longitudinal screening (800 years) for the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis (Y. pestis) across 13 archaeological sites in Denmark from 1000 to 1800 CE. Our genomic and phylogenetic data captured the emergence, continuity, and evolution of Y. pestis in this region over a period of 300 years (14th-17th century CE), for which the plague-positivity rate was 8.3% (3.3%-14.3% by site). Our phylogenetic analysis revealed that the Danish Y. pestis sequences were interspersed with those from other European countries, rather than forming a single cluster, indicative of the generation, spread, and replacement of bacterial variants through communities rather than their long-term local persistence. These results provide an epidemiological link between Y. pestis and the unknown pestilence that afflicted medieval and early modern Europe. They also demonstrate how population-scale genomic evidence can be used to test hypotheses on disease mortality and epidemiology and help pave the way for the next generation of historical disease research.

Keywords: Black Death; Scandinavia; Yersinia pestis; ancient DNA; phylogeography; plague; re-emerging infectious disease.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Denmark
  • Genome, Bacterial
  • Humans
  • Phylogeny
  • Plague* / epidemiology
  • Plague* / microbiology
  • Yersinia pestis* / genetics