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Trending Science: Antikythera shipwreck yields human skeleton

On 31 August, human bones were discovered in the famed Antikythera shipwreck, offering scientists the first hope to explore the DNA of a 1st century BC shipwreck victim.
Trending Science: Antikythera shipwreck yields human skeleton
2 000 years ago a merchant ship carrying luxury items from the eastern Mediterranean made what would have been a fairly standard voyage from Asia Minor to Rome. However, the ship failed to reach its destination as it struck rocks off the Greek island of Antikythera, likely killing everyone on board, and scattering its cargo across the seabed. The ship itself became buried in sediment, where it lay on the ocean floor until its accidental rediscovery in 1900.

Upon its discovery in 1900, salvage operations dragged up stunning bronze and marble statues, ornate glass and pottery, gold jewellery and the Antikythera mechanism, a device that modelled the heavens. These artefacts are widely renowned as some of the most spectacular relics to originate from the Classical Period.

Now, with the discovery of a human skeleton in late August 2016 buried under around half a metre of pottery shards and sand, scientists now have the rare opportunity to study the DNA from the victim of an ancient shipwreck. If the bones contain intact DNA, then this will offer a valuable insight on the doomed ship’s occupants. The skeleton is believed to be a man in his late teens to early 20s.

Finding Pamphilos

Brendan Foley, an underwater archaeologist at the US Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who is exploring the wreck with colleagues from the Greek Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities, commented: ‘This is the most exciting scientific discovery that we’ve made here. We think he was trapped inside the ship when it went down and he must have been buried very rapidly or the bones would have gone by now.

The skeleton, known now as ‘Pamphilos’, was found in a jumble – arm bones overlay leg bones, with the skull, teeth, and piece of rib lying nearby. More bones are still encased in the sediment but to excavate those would risk the possibility of an underwater landslide. The bones are a dark reddish-brown, possibly caused by age or from the uptake of iron leached from nearby artefacts. There is little wear on the teeth and bones in the skull are not fully fused, which indicates an upper age limit of 25 years. Some of the bones fell apart when being handled, whilst others, such as the leg bones, survived intact.

Unlocking DNA secrets

Following the discovery, Foley invited Hannes Schroeder, an expert in ancient-DNA analysis from the Natural History Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, to assess whether genetic material might be extracted from Pamphilos. Following a final go-ahead from the Greek authorities, he will go ahead with DNA extraction, where it should take about a week to determine whether the bones actually do contain any DNA.

Luckily, the remains include the petrous bone, the hard part of the skull behind the ear. This is dense and impenetrable to water and microbes, and thus offer Schroeder’s best hope for extracting intact DNA. If DNA does exist, confirming the sex of the individual should be easy. Schroeder would also use geographic maps of genetic variation to try and determine Pamphilos’ ancestry and where he exactly came from in the Ancient World – the Levant, the Greek mainland, North Africa or even the Black Sea region. It would also be possible to determine what he looked like, with hair, eye and skin colour also being written into any DNA that is uncovered from the skeleton.

‘If it [the skeleton] was under enough silt, there is potential,’ Schroeder commented. ‘The ancient DNA results around today are compared to what we saw five years ago – just by getting sex and ancestry you can get about one quarter of the total facial variation. Age too, is another big factor.’ If given formal permission, Schroeder hopes Pamphilos will give him the opportunity to push the boundaries of ancient-DNA studies. So far, most have been conducted on samples from colder climates, such as northern Europe. ‘I’ve been trying to push the application of ancient DNA into environments where people don’t usually look for DNA,’ he added.

However, all depends on whether or not the Pamphilos retains intact DNA. ‘This is uncharted waters, I’ve never dealt with submerged remains like this before,’ Schroeder admitted. ‘We won’t know if it works until we try, but it is definitely worth trying.’

Source: Based on media reports

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