Yersinia pestis genomes reveal plague in Britain 4000 years ago

Pooja Swali, Rick Schulting, Alexandre Gilardet, Monica Kelly, Kyriaki Anastasiadou, Isabelle Glocke, Jesse McCabe, Mia Williams, Tony Audsley, Louise Loe, Teresa Fernández-Crespo, Javier Ordoño, David Walker, Tom Clare, Geoff Cook, Ian Hodkinson, Mark Simpson, Stephen Read, Tom Davy, Marina SilvaMateja Hajdinjak, Anders Bergström, Thomas Booth, Pontus Skoglund

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Extinct lineages of Yersinia pestis, the causative agent of the plague, have been identified in several individuals from Eurasia between 5000 and 2500 years before present (BP). One of these, termed the ‘LNBA lineage’ (Late Neolithic and Bronze Age), has been suggested to have spread into Europe with human groups expanding from the Eurasian steppe. Here, we show that the LNBA plague was spread to Europe’s northwestern periphery by sequencing three Yersinia pestis genomes from Britain, all dating to ~4000 cal BP. Two individuals were from an unusual mass burial context in Charterhouse Warren, Somerset, and one individual was from a single burial under a ring cairn monument in Levens, Cumbria. To our knowledge, this represents the earliest evidence of LNBA plague in Britain documented to date. All three British Yersinia pestis genomes belong to a sublineage previously observed in Bronze Age individuals from Central Europe that had lost the putative virulence factor yapC. This sublineage is later found in Eastern Asia ~3200 cal BP. While the severity of the disease is currently unclear, the wide geographic distribution within a few centuries suggests substantial transmissibility.
Original languageEnglish
Article number2930
JournalNature Communications
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 30 May 2023

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