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Human bones found at Roman-era shipwreck site

Underwater archaeologists have found a 2,000-year-old skeleton belonging to a victim of the famed Antikythera shipwreck from ancient Roman times.

The bones are the latest prize from a treasure trove that has yielded bronze statues, marble sculptures and, most famously, the Antikythera mechanism, a clock-like device thought to be the world’s oldest analogue computer.

Since its discovery in 1900 by sponge divers, the Antikythera shipwreck has provided archaeologists with a window into the trading practices and culture of the ancient Mediterranean by the recovery of jewellery and trinkets. Now, if the researchers can collect genetic information from the human remains, they will gain their best insight yet into the lives of the people who perished on the vessel in 65 B.C.

DNA test planned

“We knew this was the find of the decade in terms of underwater archaeology,” said Brendan Foley, a research specialist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute who helped uncover the bones. “We’re hoping that by the end of this year we’ll have the first DNA results from an ancient shipwreck victim.” Mr. Foley and his colleagues discovered the remains while excavating the site off the coast of the Greek island Antikythera in late August. One of his fellow divers had alerted him to some long bones he had found some 160-feet below. When Mr. Foley swam over and looked he thought: “Wow! Oh my god there’s a whole skeleton here.” The long bones turned out to be the ulna and radius of a forearm. Buried in the sand were also a skull, an upper jaw with some teeth, some ribs, and two femurs.

They called in Hannes Schroeder, an ancient DNA researcher from the Natural History Museum of Denmark, to help determine whether they could extract genetic information from the bones. Microbes, oxygen and salt water at the bottom of the sea can be detrimental to the survival of ancient DNA, he said. But he is optimistic that they can retrieve some genetic material because the team recovered something called the petrous portion of the temporal bone, which is the hard part behind the ear. Ancient DNA recovered from this part of the skull tends to be better preserved than samples from any other body part, including the teeth.

It’s not the first time that researchers have uncovered human remains from the site. In 1976 Jacques Cousteau had found a few bones as well, but he did not have the technology needed to genetically test them.

Mr. Schroeder said the reason the team had not done genetic testing on the bones found by Cousteau is because they could not find the specimens. But he added that even if they had known where the remnants were, testing probably would not have been useful because they most likely would have been contaminated by now.

The most recently found bones are much better preserved, he said, and they could provide information about where the individual came from as well as insight into facial features and diet.

The plans are to begin genetic tests as soon as the team receives permission from Greek authorities. — New York Times News Service

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