Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Roman York skeleton could be early TB victim

The skeleton of a man discovered by archaeologists in a shallow grave on the site of the University of York’s campus expansion could be that of one of Britain’s earliest victims of tuberculosis.

Radiocarbon dating suggests that the man died in the fourth century. He was interred in a shallow scoop in a flexed position, on his left side.

The man, aged 26-35 years, suffered from iron deficiency anaemia during childhood and at 162 centimetres (5ft 4in), was a shorter height than average for Roman males.

The first known case of TB in Britain is from the Iron Age (300 BC) but cases in the Roman period are fairly rare, and largely confined to the southern half of England. TB is most frequent from the 12th century AD in England when people were living in urban environments. So the skeleton may provide crucial evidence for the origin and development of the disease in this country.

The remains were discovered during archaeological investigations on the site of the University’s £500 million expansion at Heslington East. Archaeologists unearthed the skeleton close to the perimeter of the remains of a late-Roman masonry building discovered on the site, close to the route of an old Roman road between York and Barton-on-Humber.

The burial site is on part of the campus that will not be built on. The University is developing plans for community archaeology and education visits once the investigations are complete.

Detailed analysis of the skeleton by Malin Holst, of York Osteoarchaeology Ltd, revealed that a likely cause of death was tuberculosis which affected the man’s spine and pelvis. She says that it is possible that he contracted the disease as a child from infected meat or milk from cattle, but equally the infection could have been inhaled into the lungs. The disease then lay dormant until adulthood when the secondary phase of the disease took its toll.

Heslington East Fieldwork Officer Cath Neal, of the University’s Department of Archaeology, said: “This was a remarkable find and detailed study of this skeleton will provide us with important clues about the emergence of tuberculosis in late-Roman Britain, but also information about what life was like in York more than 1,500 years ago.

“A burial such as this, close to living quarters, is unusual for this period when most burials were in formal cemeteries. It is possible that the man was buried here because the tuberculosis infection was so rare at the time, and people were reluctant to transport the body any distance.”

Malin Holst added: “There were signs of muscular trauma and strong muscle attachments indicating that the individual undertook repeated physical activity while he was in good health. There was some intensive wear and chipping on his front teeth which may have been the result of repeated or habitual activity. There was evidence for infection of the bone in both lower limbs but this appeared to be healing at death.”

Investigation of the remains is continuing -- Professor Charlotte Roberts, of Durham University, with Professor Terry Brown at Manchester University, is now studying DNA from the skeleton as part of National Environmental Research Council funded research into the origin, evolution and spread of the bacteria that causes TB in Britain and parts of Europe.

Source: University of York;17th September 2008.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Study shows 28,000-year-old Europeans' DNA was like ours

40,000 years ago, the Cro-Magnoid people – the first people who had a skeleton that looked anatomically modern – entered Europe, coming from Africa. In the July 16 issue of the open-access journal PLoS ONE, a group of geneticists, coordinated by Guido Barbujani and David Caramelli of the Universities of Ferrara and Florence, shows that a Cro-Magnoid individual who lived in Southern Italy 28,000 years ago was a modern European, genetically as well as anatomically.

The Cro-Magnoid people long coexisted in Europe with other humans, the Neandertals, whose anatomy and DNA were clearly different from ours. However, obtaining a reliable sequence of Cro-Magnoid DNA was technically challenging.

"The risk in the study of ancient individuals is to attribute to the fossil specimen the DNA left there by archaeologists or biologists who manipulated it", Barbujani says. "To avoid that, we followed all phases of the retrieval of the fossil bones and typed the DNA sequences of all people who had any contacts with them."

The results demonstrate for the first time that the anatomical differences between Neandertals and Cro-Magnoids were associated with clear genetic differences. The Neandertal people, who lived in Europe for nearly 300,000 years, are not the ancestors of modern Europeans.

Caramelli D, Milani L, Vai S, Modi A, Pecchioli E, et al. (2008) A 28,000 Years Old Cro-Magnon mtDNA Sequence Differs from All Potentially Contaminating Modern Sequences. PLoS ONE 3(7): e2700. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002700