Open access at Cell:
Summary: The bacteria Yersinia pestis is the etiological agent of plague and has caused human pandemics with millions of deaths in historic times. How and when it originated remains contentious. Here, we report the oldest direct evidence of Yersinia pestis identified by ancient DNA in human teeth from Asia and Europe dating from 2,800 to 5,000 years ago. By sequencing the genomes, we find that these ancient plague strains are basal to all known Yersinia pestis. We find the origins of the Yersinia pestis lineage to be at least two times older than previous estimates. We also identify a temporal sequence of genetic changes that lead to increased virulence and the emergence of the bubonic plague. Our results show that plague infection was endemic in the human populations of Eurasia at least 3,000 years before any historical recordings of pandemics.
Rasmussen et al., Early Divergent Strains of Yersinia pestis in Eurasia 5,000 Years Ago, Cell, Volume 163, Issue 3, p571–582, 22 October 2015, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2015.10.009
Also, some juicy quotes at ScienceDaily:
Study co-author Dr Marta Mirazón-Lahr, from Cambridge's Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies (LCHES), points out that a study earlier this year from Willerslev's Copenhagen group showed the Bronze Age to be a highly active migratory period, which could have led to the spread of pneumonic plague.
"The Bronze Age was a period of major metal weapon production, and it is thought increased warfare, which is compatible with emerging evidence of large population movements at the time. If pneumonic plague was carried as part of these migrations, it would have had devastating effects on small groups they encountered," she said.
"Well-documented cases have shown the pneumonic plague's chain of infection can go from a single hunter or herder to ravaging an entire community in two to three days."
University of Cambridge. "Plague in humans 'twice as old' but didn't begin as flea-borne, ancient DNA reveals." ScienceDaily, 22 October 2015. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/10/151022124532.htm.