DNA sleuths follow the journey of a 2,000-year-old corpse found in Britain

By | December 20, 2023

A man born in Russia 2,000 years ago ended up buried in England – and thanks to DNA, researchers think they have finally discovered how.

Scientists from London’s Francis Crick Institute, England’s Durham University and MOLA Headland Infrastructure, a consortium of two British archeology companies, worked together to determine the globe-trotting history of a skeleton found in 2017.

The remains, found during an excavation of the MOLA Headland Infrastructure in Cambridgeshire, were buried near a rural farm. However, the man, known as Offord Cluny 203645, could have come from thousands of miles away, the scientists said in research published in Current Biology.

Archaeologists excavate the burial of Offord Cluny 203645.  / Credit: MOLA Headland InfrastructureArchaeologists excavate the burial of Offord Cluny 203645.  / Credit: MOLA Headland Infrastructure

Archaeologists excavate the burial of Offord Cluny 203645. / Credit: MOLA Headland Infrastructure

The DNA analysis was carried out as part of a project on ancient genomes in Britain, led by the Francis Crick Institute’s Laboratory for Ancient Genomics. Marina Soares de Silva, a postdoctoral researcher at the lab, said in an institute press release that she and her fellow researchers “began by extracting and sequencing ancient DNA from the bone of the individual’s inner ear,” and noted that this is the place that has been best preserved. Ancient DNA is “very fragmented and damaged,” Soares de Silva said, but the team was “able to sequence enough of its DNA to get good quality” and compare it to other samples from ancient individuals.

“The first thing we saw was that genetically he was very different from the other Romano-British individuals studied so far,” Soares de Silva said. “In fact, our analysis showed that he had common ancestry with previously studied individuals from the Caucasus and Sarmatian groups.”

The Sarmatians were a nomadic people who spoke Iranian and were renowned horsemen who lived in the area that would become modern-day southern Russia and Ukraine, according to the publication.

Marina Soares de Silva of the Francis Crick Institute's Ancient Genomics Laboratory prepares ancient DNA for sequencing.  / Credit: Stephen Potvin, The Francis Crick InstituteMarina Soares de Silva of the Francis Crick Institute's Ancient Genomics Laboratory prepares ancient DNA for sequencing.  / Credit: Stephen Potvin, The Francis Crick Institute

Marina Soares de Silva of the Francis Crick Institute’s Ancient Genomics Laboratory prepares ancient DNA for sequencing. / Credit: Stephen Potvin, The Francis Crick Institute

However, DNA testing alone could not confirm where the man was born as his parents could have moved to the area before his birth. Researchers began to focus on other types of analysis, and soon experts from the Department of Archeology at the University of Durham were analyzing isotopes of the man’s teeth to see where he grew up and how his diet might have changed during his life.

Those researchers found that the man “lived in an arid location in eastern continental Europe” until he was 5 or 6, according to Janet Montgomery, a professor at the university. His diet at that age focused on crops like “millet and sorghum, which are not native to Europe,” Montgomery said.

As the man grew, “he migrated west, and these plants disappeared from his diet,” Montgomery said. His diet changed again around the age of nine, indicating that he moved to southeastern or central Europe as a child before arriving in Britain and dying sometime between the ages of 18 and 25.

Researchers had several theories about how the man moved to Europe. One theory concerns a battle from 175 AD, when then-Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius defeated a Sarmatian army on the northeastern border of the empire. He incorporated the cavalry into his legions and sent some of them to Britain, making it possible for the man to join them as a child. Alex Smith, a post-excavation manager for MOLA Headland Infrastructure, said this theory “fits in with previous burial evidence from Britain, suggesting that entire families may have joined the 5,500 members of the Sarmatian cavalry brought to Britain by Marcus Aurelius Britain have been sent.”

“Did this young man grow up to be part of this cavalry unit? We can’t say because we have no finds or artifacts from his grave that link him to the Roman army or the Sarmatians,” Smith said. . ‘Overall we have very limited evidence for the Sarmatians being stationed in Britain. We know that they were probably on Hadrian’s Wall and at Catterick in North Yorkshire, but they may well have been spread across the country. If this young man was part of the cavalry, perhaps he died on the way to a military area.”

Long distance travel was also common during this period, making it possible that the man moved for his own reasons. The effects of these movements were most often seen in “cities or military locations,” according to Tom Booth, a senior laboratory researcher at the Francis Crick Institute, but the man moved from one rural area to another, showing a new kind of travel. .

“It has previously been argued that rural life was largely unaffected by Roman rule, but this shows a clear rural influence,” Booth said.

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