Black death burial site in Italy yields a rare coffin birth

Researchers investigating a 14th century burial ground have identified a rare case of “coffin birth” – a gruesome phenomenon in which a deceased pregnant woman’s fetus is expelled within the grave.

plague_victim-1c

The remains of a mother and fetus were buried alongside those of two other children in the early days of the Black Death in Italy, however researchers cannot say for certain that they died of the plague [Credit: Fabrizio Benente (Universita di Genova – DAFIST)]

The event, which has seldom been reported in archaeology, is known as postmortem fetal extrusion. It results from a build-up of gas pressure within the decomposing body.

“In this case, we have a partial expulsion of a 38- to 40-week-old fetus, which was found to be complete and to lie within the birth canal,” Deneb Cesana, at the University of Genova, told Seeker.

The remains of the woman and her unborn baby were originally uncovered in 2006, interred with two other young individuals that scientists say were aged 12 and three years old. Only recently has the discovery been fully investigated.

The research was led by Cesana and her colleagues Ole Jørgen Benedictow, a plague historian at the University of Oslo, and Raffaella Bianucci, a bioanthropologist at the University of Warwick in England. Their work appears in the journal Anthropological Science.

The gravesite was found in the cemetery of the “ospitale” (hostel) of San Nicolao di Pietra Colice, located some 45 miles from Genova.

The hostel, which also housed a church, was situated in the Northern Apennines at about 2,600 feet above sea level, and was used as a resting place by travelers and pilgrims heading to Rome and trekking along the two major transit routes of the Liguria region.

“The woman was found laying slightly on her side, while on her left there were two young individuals of unknown sex,” said archaeologist Fabrizio Benente, of the University of Genova.

Benente, who was not involved in the anthropological study, directed the excavation campaign with a team of the International Institute of Ligurian Studies and the University of Genova.

“This was the only multiple burial found at the cemetery,” he said. “The others were all single graves.”

(a) Skeleton of the adult female (b) Skeleton of the 12-year-old sub-adult (c) Skeleton 
of the 3-year-old sub-adult (d) Skeleton of the 38–40-week-old fetus [Credit: Cesana, D., Benedictow, O.J., & R. Bianucci]

He added that the corpses had been buried simultaneously and directly into the soil, and dated the burial to the second half of the 14th century.

The timing corresponded to the arrival of the Black Death in Genoa in 1348. The researchers hypothesized that the woman and the two children likely died of the bubonic plague.

Bianucci’s analysis confirmed that three of the four individuals – the woman, the fetus, and the 12-year-old child – tested positive for the F1 antigen of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes the plague.

“This is the first evidence of Y. pestis infection in 14th-century Liguria,” Bianucci said.

“Our finding supports the notion that the contagion, which had originally started from Genoa’s port area, progressively spread and disseminated through the main communication routes,” she added.

Anthropological investigations carried out and funded by the Archaeological Museum of Sestri Levante and the Archaeological Superintendency of Liguria showed that the woman, who was about 5 feet 11 inches tall, was between 30 and 39 years old when she died.

It emerged that she had several ailments during her life. Her teeth revealed localized periodontitis and linear enamel hypoplasia – a band-like dental defect that denotes childhood physiological stress – while her bones showed evidence of other diseases.

The woman also suffered from congenital hip dysplasia and was likely affected by Legg–Calvé–Perthes disease, a childhood condition that affects the hip, resulting in a permanent deformity of the head of the thigh bone (femur). She likely walked with a limp.

The skeleton of the 12-year-old showed signs of lesions that were possibly linked to metabolic diseases or nutritional deficiencies. The 3-year-old child had no evidence of disease.

The researchers have not yet conducted DNA analysis that will determine the sex of the children and whether they have a relationship with the pregnant woman.

According to Benente, it is possible that they were her children. He believes that they ended up in the mountains, far from the villages, because the hostel of San Nicolao might have worked as a lazaretto, a hospital for people afflicted with contagious diseases.

“She was in advanced pregnancy and limping,” Benente said. “This wasn’t the best condition to go on a pilgrimage to Rome, possibly with two kids.”

According to the authors of the study, every conclusion is premature before DNA tests and further research are carried out.

“At the moment we can really only say that the skeleton of this unfortunate and frail woman is providing us with a new case of coffin birth,” Bianucci said, “which adds to the limited number reported so far.” 

Source.

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Mapping genes: Orkney Islanders are 25% Norwegian

They are proud of their Viking ancestors but are not as Norwegian as they might think. The lion’s share of the genes of Orkney Islanders can be traced to the native peoples who lived their several millennia before Norwegians invaded and annexed the islands in the 9th century.

Mapping genes

British and Australian researchers have mapped the genetic structure of today’s Brits. They found that the only place where the Viking inheritance is genetically strong is the Orkney Islands. Orkney were under Norwegian rule for centuries and as a result, 25 percent of Orkney Islanders’ genes can be traced to Norway.

The locals tend to be enthusiastic about their Viking heritage, which has now also been strongly identified in their genes:

“The people here are very fond of Norway and I feel most welcome,” says Ragnhild Ljosland. The Norwegian researcher is an associate professor at the Centre for Nordic Studies at Orkney College in Kirkwall, which is part of the University of the Highlands and Islands.

Dialect

Ljosland’s research is in language, not genetics. She explains that words in Orkney dialect often have a close historic relationship to Norway:

“I feel that the Orkney dialect is just as Norwegian as it is Scottish,” she says. Ljosland mentions vowels, which have remained the same. For instance the Norwegian båt and the English boat, or the names for farming tools and animals. As for birds the Norwegian skarv (cormorant) is a scarfe in Orkney, a teist is a tistie and a lomvi is a loomie.

Ragnhild Ljosland explains that in the 15th and 16th centuries Norway and the the rest of Scotland shared stronger linguistic traits. Contemporary Norwegian and Scottish speech was then closely related.

Using the landscape

The Centre for Nordic Studies has initiated a project which also covers the way the Vikings made use of the landscape when they settled in the Orkneys.

“The Vikings came here and found a landscape which was already in use, with farms, paths and burial mounds. These mounds look like the ones in Norway from the Viking Era, but they actually pre-date them,” explains Ljosland.

Picts

The same goes for the genetic make-up of today’s Orkney Islanders. It traces back much further than many have believed.  A surprisingly large amount of their genes stems from the Picts and other peoples who lived on the islands long before Harald Fairhair took control of them in 875.

The other Vikings who dominated parts of the UK – the Danes in Danelaw (or Danelagh) in Eastern England – have not left anything comparable to the DNA signature as the Norwegian Vikings in the Orkneys. In fact the population of the Orkneys is the most genetically distinct in the UK, thanks to a quarter of their DNA coming from Norwegian ancestors. Most of the population in Eastern, Southern and Central England is fairly homogenous. Prior to the mass migrations of the 20th century, the last immigrants to significantly alter the British genetic make-up were the Anglo Saxons who came in the 5th century after the Romans left Great Britain.

No equivalent in Celtic DNA

The Celtic languages and culture are seeing something of a revival in Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Cornwall. But the latest research shows that the Celtic impact is more a matter of culture than genes. The Celts in Southwest England’s Cornwall, for instance, were far closer related to other English groups than to the Celts in Wales and Scotland.

The international team of researchers behind the charting of the British genes is from the University of Oxford, University College London and Murdoch Childrens Research Institute in Australia. The collected DNA samples from a carefully chosen geographically diverse sample of over 2,000 Brits. All of those selected had grandparents who were born less than 80 kilometres from one another. This has given the scientists information about the genes of the local populations in three generations.

The data was then compared with samples from 6,200 persons in ten different European countries.

Professor Peter Donnelly of the University of Oxford, who co-led the research, said in a press release: “It has long been known that human populations differ genetically, but never before have we been able to observe such exquisite and fascinating detail. By coupling this with our assessment of the genetic contributions from different parts of Europe we were able to add to our understanding of UK population history.”

Source.

DNA reveals a complex patchwork of prehistoric migrations

From bbc:

DNA from ancient skeletons has revealed how a complex patchwork of prehistoric migrations fashioned the modern European gene pool.

The study appears to refute the picture of Europeans as a simple mixture of indigenous hunters and Near Eastern farmers who arrived 7,000 years ago.

The findings by an international team have been published in Science journal.

DNA was analysed from 364 skeletons unearthed in Germany – an important crossroads for prehistoric cultures.

“This is the largest and most detailed genetic time series of Europe yet created, allowing us to establish a complete genetic chronology,” said co-author Dr Wolfgang Haak of the Australian Centre for DNA (ACAD) in Adelaide.

“Focusing on this small but highly important geographic region meant we could generate a gapless record, and directly observe genetic changes in ‘real-time’ from 7,500 to 3,500 years ago, from the earliest farmers to the early Bronze Age.”

Dr Haak and his colleagues analysed DNA extracted from the teeth and bones of well-preserved remains from the Mittelelbe-Saale region of Germany. They focused on mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) – the genetic information in the cell’s “batteries”.

MtDNA is passed down from a mother to her children, allowing geneticists to probe the maternal histories of populations. Geneticists recognise a variety of mitochondrial DNA “clans”, or lineages, in human populations. And each of these lineages has its own distinct history.

The team’s results show that indigenous hunter-gatherers in Central Europe were edged out by incomers from Anatolia (modern Turkey) some 7,500 years ago. A majority of the hunters belonged to the maternal clan known as haplogroup U, whilst the farmers carried a selection of genetic lineages characteristic of the Near East.

Around 6,100 years ago, farming was introduced to Scandinavia, which coincided with the appearance of Neolithic mtDNA lineages in that region too.

“In some ways agriculture was an obvious and easy way to go in the Fertile Crescent. But once you take it out of there, it involves an abrupt shift in lifestyle,” said Dr Spencer Wells, director of the Genographic Project and an Explorer-in-Residence at National Geographic, adding that early agricultural groups were living “on the edge”.

“They were basically taking crops that had evolved over millions of years in the Middle East and were adapted to that dry-wet pattern of seasonality and moving them into an area that was recently de-glaciated.

“It was no trivial thing to transfer crops such as barley and rye to the northern fringes of Europe.”

Dr Wells thinks this precarious existence may be reflected in the spread of the lactase persistence gene, which enables people to digest milk into adulthood. Scandinavian populations have some of the highest frequencies of this gene variant in Europe, and it appears to have undergone strong natural selection in the last few thousand years – suggesting milk had a key nutritional role and the ability to drink it conferred an enormous advantage.

“What it implies is that the underlying farming culture is not stable. They are literally teetering on the brink of dying out,” said Dr Wells.

Indeed, something does seem to have happened to the descendents of the first farmers in Central Europe. The DNA evidence shows that about a millennium later, genetic lineages associated with these Near Eastern pioneers decline, and those of the hunter-gatherers bounce back. Climate change and disease are both possibilities, but the causes are a matter for further investigation.

A second study, also published in Science by Ruth Bollongino at the University of Mainz, Germany and colleagues, implies that hunter-gatherer cultures persisted alongside farming cultures for 2,000 years after the introduction of agriculture to the region – with very little interbreeding between the two.

From 4,800 years ago, novel maternal lineages spread into the region, associated with the emergence of the Corded Ware people – who take their name from the inscribed patterns on their pottery.

The study suggests this culture was brought by groups moving in from the East. Scientists compared the mtDNA types found in Corded Ware people with modern populations and found distinct affinities with present-day groups in Eastern Europe, the Baltic region and the Caucasus.

A few hundred years later, a counterpart of this society swept in from the West. This ancient group, known as the Bell Beaker Culture, was in part responsible for the spread of a mtDNA lineage called Haplogroup H.

Largely absent from Central European hunters and scarce in early Neolithic farmers, H remains the dominant maternal lineage in Europe today and comparisons between the Bell Beaker people and modern populations suggest they came from Iberia – modern Spain and Portugal.

“Our study shows that a simple mix of indigenous hunter-gatherers and the incoming Near Eastern farmers cannot explain the modern-day diversity alone,” said co-author Guido Brandt, from the University of Mainz.

“The genetic results are much more complex than that. Instead, we found that two particular cultures at the brink of the Bronze Age 4,200 years ago had a marked role in the formation of Central Europe’s genetic makeup.”

Spencer Wells explained: “When you look at today’s populations, what you are seeing is a hazy palimpsest of what actually went on to create present-day patterns.”

Dr Haak concurs: “None of the dynamic changes we observed could have been inferred from modern-day genetic data alone, highlighting the potential power of combining ancient DNA studies with archaeology to reconstruct human evolutionary history.”

Native American came to Europe with Vikings

From Discovery News:

The first Native American to arrive in Europe may have been a woman brought to Iceland by the Vikings more than 1,000 years ago, a study by Spanish and Icelandic researchers suggests.

The findings boost widely-accepted theories, based on Icelandic medieval texts and a reputed Viking settlement in Newfoundland in Canada, that the Vikings reached the American continent several centuries before Christopher Columbus traveled to the “New World.”

Spain’s CSIC scientific research institute said genetic analysis of around 80 people from a total of four families in Iceland showed they possess a type of DNA normally only found in Native Americans or East Asians.

“It was thought at first that (the DNA) came from recently established Asian families in Iceland,” CSIC researcher Carles Lalueza-Fox was quoted as saying in a statement by the institute. “But when family genealogy was studied, it was discovered that the four families were descended from ancestors who lived between 1710 and 1740 from the same region of southern Iceland.”

The lineage found, named C1e, is also mitochondrial, which means that the genes were introduced into Iceland by a woman.

“As the island was virtually isolated from the 10th century, the most likely hypothesis is that these genes corresponded to an Amerindian woman who was brought from America by the Vikings around the year 1000,” said Lalueza-Fox.

The researchers used data from the Rejkjavik-based genomics company deCODE Genetics.

He said the research team hopes to find more instances of the same Native American DNA in Iceland’s population, starting in the same region in the south of the country near the massive Vatnajokull glacier.

The report, by scientists from the CSIC and the University of Iceland, was also published in the latest edition of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

The journal said 75 to 80 percent of contemporary Icelanders can trace their lineage to Scandinavia and the rest to Scotland and Ireland.

But the C1e lineage is “one of a handful that was involved in the settlement of the Americas around 14,000 years ago.

“Contrary to an initial assumption that this lineage was a recent arrival (in Iceland), preliminary genealogical analyses revealed that the C1 lineage was present in the Icelandic mitochondrial DNA pool at least 300 years ago” said the journal. “This raised the intriguing possibility that the Icelandic C1 lineage could be traced to Viking voyages to the Americas that commenced in the 10th century.”

From Discovery News.

A little Neanderthal DNA in us

From Spiegel

Svante Pääbo with the skull of a Neanderthal

[An international team led by scientists based at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig have successfully sequenced the Neanderthal genome, the first time the genetic code of an extinct human relative has been decoded.

By comparing the Neanderthal genome to modern human genes, the researchers say, it’s possible to isolate the parts of our genetic code that makes humans human — and tell once and for all whether humans and Neanderthals may once have mated. “Having a first version of the Neanderthal genome fulfils a long-standing dream,” Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology Director Svante Pääbo said in an announcement. “For the first time now we can identify genetic features that set us apart from all other organisms, including our closest evolutionary relatives.”   …]

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King Tutankhamun died from broken leg and malaria

Egypt’s famed King Tutankhamun suffered from a cleft palate and club foot, likely forcing him to walk with a cane, and died from complications from a broken leg exacerbated by malaria, according to the most extensive study ever of his mummy.

The findings were from two years of DNA testing and CT scans on 16 mummies, including those of Tutankhamun and his family, the team that carried out the study said in an article to be published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

It also established the clearest yet family tree for Tut. The study said his father was most likely Akhenaten, the pharaoh who tried to revolutionize ancient Egyptian religion to worship one god — while his mother was a still unidentified sister of Akhenaten.

Tut, who became pharaoh at the age of 10 in 1333 B.C., ruled for just nine years at a pivotal time in Egypt’s history. While a comparatively minor king, the 1922 discovery of his tomb filled with stunning artifacts, including the famed golden funeral mask, made him known the world over.

Speculation had long swirled over why the boy king died at such a young age. A hole in his skull long fueled speculation he was murdered, until a 2005 CAT scan ruled that out, finding the hole was likely from the mummification process. The scan also uncovered the broken leg.

The newest CAT scans and DNA tests revealed a pharaoh weakened by congenital illnesses finally done in by complications from the broken leg aggravated by severe brain malaria. The team said it isolated DNA of the malaria parasite — the oldest such discovery.

“A sudden leg fracture possibly introduced by a fall might have resulted in a life threatening condition when a malaria infection occurred,” concluded the article in the Journal of the American Medical Association. “Tutankhamun had multiple disorders… He might be envisioned as a young but frail king who needed canes to walk.”

Like his father, Tutankhamun had a cleft palate. He also had a club foot, like his grandfather, and suffered from Kohler’s disease in which lack of blood flow was slowly destroying the bones of his left foot.

The studies also disproved speculation that Tutankhamun and members of his family suffered from rare disorders that gave them feminine attributes and misshapen bones, including Marfan Syndrome, a connective tissue disorder that can result in elongated limbs.

The theories arose from the artistic style and statues of the period, which showed the royal men with prominent breasts, elongated heads and flared hips.

“It is unlikely that either Tutankhamun or Akhenaten actually displayed a significantly bizarre or feminine physique,” said the article.

SOURCE