Pompeii: Ancient pregnant tortoise surprises archaeologists
When Mount Vesuvius erupted nearly 2,000 years ago Pompeii’s ancient residents were frozen in place by ash. So too it turns out we’re the city’s flora and fauna – including a pregnant tortoise with her egg.
Archaeologists found the reptile’s remains buried under ash and rock where it had laid undiscovered since 79AD. The tortoise was sheltering beneath an already-destroyed building when volcanic disaster struck.
Archaeologists found the remains while excavating an area of the city that its ancient inhabitants had been rebuilding after an earlier earthquake devastated Pompeii in 62AD.
Around 2,000 years ago the 14cm (5.5in) tortoise had burrowed into a tiny underground lair beneath a shop destroyed in that earlier quake.
Experts say the fact it was found with an egg suggests it was killed while trying to find somewhere peaceful to lay its offspring.
Oxford University archaeologist Mark Robinson, who discovered the remains of another tortoise at a nearby Pompeii site in 2002, told the BBC there were two explanations for how the reptile had gotten there.
“One is that it is a pet tortoise that possibly escaped and made its way onto what were the ruins of the great earthquake,” he said.
A likelier possibility is that it was a tortoise from the nearby countryside that had wandered into the ancient city, he said.
“Pompeii was substantially wrecked and not everywhere could be rebuilt after the earthquake. The flora and fauna from the surrounding countryside had moved into the town.”
Experts say the discovery illustrates the richness of Pompeii’s natural ecosystem in the period after the earthquake.
“The whole city was a construction site, and evidently some spaces were so unused that wild animals could roam, enter and try to lay their eggs,” said Pompeii’s director-general, Gabriel Zuchtriegel.
One visitor to Pompeii, a Finnish PhD student who happened to be passing by the site when the discovery was made, described what he saw to the BBC as “spectacular.”
“They had just removed the shell of the animal, so what was visible was the skeleton and the egg,” Joonas Vanhala said. “It was a light-brown, sandy colour.”
“I wouldn’t have recognised it as an egg if they hadn’t told me,” he added.
Researchers Return to Greece’s Antikythera Shipwreck
The so-called Antikythera mechanism, recovered from the wreckage of an ancient cargo ship off the coast of Antikythera Island in Greece, might be the world’s oldest analogue computer. The mystery surrounding its purpose and origin continues to fascinate scientists and enthusiasts alike to this day. But it’s not the only treasure salvaged from that Antikythera wreck.
An ongoing underwater archaeological project most recently recovered a large marble head of a bearded male figure believed to be part of a statue of Hercules. Divers also recovered a marble plinth with the lower legs of another statue, two human teeth, and several pieces of the cargo ship’s equipment.
As we’ve previously reported, in 1900, a Greek sponge diver named Elias Stadiatis discovered the wreck, which was apparently surrounded by rotting corpses on the sea floor. The captain, Dimitrios Kondos, didn’t believe Elias at first and thought the nitrogen in his breathing mix had affected the diver’s senses. So Kondos dove down to the site himself, emerging with an arm from a bronze statue.
Kondos and his crew had recovered all kinds of artefacts from the shipwreck by mid-1901, including 36 marble sculptures (representing Hercules, Ulysses, Diomedes, Hermes, and Apollo, among others); a bronze statue dubbed “The Philosopher” (circa 340 BCE); a bronze lyre; pieces of glasswork; and three marble horse statues. Along with the Antikythera mechanism, these precious artefacts are now housed in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.
The salvage work ended that summer, however, after one diver died and two others were paralyzed from decompression sickness. No further attempt was made to excavate the treasures of the Antikythera wreck until famed explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau visited the site in 1953. Twenty-three years later, Cousteau returned and worked with archaeologists to recover nearly 300 more artefacts. They dredged a section of the wreck to reveal artifacts previously hidden from view.
These included hull planks, ceramic jars, bronze and silver coins, jewellery, and more marble and bronze statues. Cousteau’s 1976 expedition also recovered scattered human bones from at least four different people.
The wreck was left alone again for nearly 40 years until a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) marine archaeologist named Brendan Foley (now at Lund University in Sweden) got permission from the Greek government in 2012 to undertake a complete diving survey of the wreckage site. As a bonus, they found a second ancient shipwreck just a few hundred meters south of the Antikythera wreck.
Foley’s team used mixed-gas closed-circuit rebreather technology for their survey, which gave divers over half an hour of time underwater each day—much longer than prior expeditions. Furthermore, the Exosuit—described as “Iron Man for underwater science”—allowed divers to descend to 1,000 feet (over 300 meters) and remain underwater for several hours, with no need to decompress as they returned to the surface.
Since then, the Return to Antikythera project has recovered numerous additional items, and the team believes there could be hundreds more buried beneath the sediment. For instance, the 2014–2016 fieldwork yielded wood from the hull or decks, parts of two lead anchors, bronze nails and spikes, bronze spears from statues, glass bowls, ceramic decanters, a gold ring, and several “puzzling bronze objects.”
The highlight was an ancient weapon known as a “dolphin”: a lead bulb with an iron spike on its tip that could be dropped through the deck and hull of an enemy vessel.
The divers also recovered parts of a human skeleton in 2016: a partial skull with three teeth, two arm bones, several ribs, and two femurs, all from a single individual. Because the bones were surrounded by iron objects that had corroded during their time in the ocean, all the bones were stained an amber-red from iron oxide.
Even more parts of bronze and marble statues were recovered during the 2017 excavation, along with a red marble sarcophagus lid, a large section of hull planking, and even more human remains. All of these will be closely examined to learn more about the wreck itself and the unfortunate people on board.
The 2022 expedition managed to relocate several natural sea-floor boulders (each weighing about 8.5 tons) that had been partially covering the wreck, allowing divers to explore new parts of the ship.
The marble head they recovered most likely belongs to a headless statue, dubbed “Herakles of Antikythera,” retrieved by the sponge divers back in 1900.
The marble plinth is being cleaned and restored; it was covered in various marine deposits. The objects will be analyzed with X-rays, among other techniques, while the teeth will undergo genetic and isotopic analysis.
The exact location where each artefact was found has been carefully documented and will be added to the 3D model of the site currently being developed. The team also collected sediment samples for micro-analysis in hopes of learning more about the dimensions of the wreck. The Return to Antikythera project will continue its work, and perhaps one day it will unearth more pieces of the original Antikythera mechanism—or something even more amazing.
Scientists have unearthed an Inca-era tomb under a home in the heart of Peru’s capital, Lima, a burial believed to hold remains wrapped in cloth alongside ceramics and fine ornaments.
The lead archaeologist, Julio Abanto, told Reuters the 500-year-old tomb contained “multiple funerary bundles” tightly wrapped in cloth.
He said those entombed were probably from the elite of Ruricancho society, a culture that once populated present-day Lima before the powerful Inca came to rule a sprawling empire across the length of western South America in the 1400s.
Hipolito Tica, the owner of the house in Lima, said he was overcome with emotion at the surprise find. “It’s amazing. I really have no other words to describe it,” he said, expressing a hope that future generations in the working-class San Juan de Lurigancho neighbourhood would better appreciate the rich history all around them.
Excavations began in May after Tica’s building plans for his property triggered a required archaeological survey. The district of Lima is known for hundreds of past archaeological finds from cultures that developed before and after the Inca.
Second Possible Seventh-Century Mosque Uncovered in Israel
Three years after finding one of the world’s earliest rural mosques in southern Israel, archaeologists have found a second one in the same town. Both mosques were discovered during different stages of salvation excavations in the Bedouin town of Rahat, in the northern Negev, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced Wednesday. The excavations are directed by Oren Shmueli, Dr. Elena Kogan-Zehavi and Dr. Noe David Michael on behalf of the IAA.
The two mosques are both approximately 1,200 years old, though precise dating is challenging under the circumstances – and the newly unearthed one was built a few hundred meters from the ruins of a strangely magnificent mansion that had apparently belonged to wealthy Byzantine Christians.
The newly found mosque is classic in structure, including a square room and a wall facing the “sacred” direction of the Kaaba in the holy city of Mecca. The structure also contains a niche shaped in a half-circle, called a mihrab, located along the center of the wall and also pointing southward toward Mecca.
Why is dating the mosques a problem? In the case of the one found first and reported in 2019, it seems the people who came to pray came empty-handed, Kogan-Zehavi explains. Since the sites at Rahat – five are presently under excavation – are dated mainly by pottery, if the worshippers came without any, that is a problem. That one was dated based on finds in the buildings around it, Kogan-Zehavi says.
This second one did contain finds – in the sense that it had been built above a Christian farm, which had been discovered earlier. Thus, they reached the conclusion that it dates to the early days of Islam, the seventh century. In other words, we cannot say whether the two mosques operated at the same time – but there is no reason to think they didn’t, she says.
The ancient farming settlement at Rahat operated in the late Byzantine and early Islamic periods. It is not known, certainly not regarding the house, whether the inhabitants were Islamic nomads who swept in from the desert and settled down, or were local converts from Christianity, Kogan-Zehavi says. In any case, a city this was not; ancient Rahat was farmland, and the mosques were not central in the town; they were on its periphery. Located a few kilometres apart, each could have served its immediately local community, calling the faithful in adjacent farms to prayer, Kogan-Zehavi says. So, even though there may have been two contemporary mosques in the same settlement, this was still not a town, let alone a city, and they can still be called extremely early rural mosques.
Elsewhere, in Har Hanegev – a range of rather small, barren mountains deep in the desert – archaeologists have found early mosques built in open land, not associated with settlements. They may have been open to the air, without roofs, and served to call people in the area to convene, Kogan-Zehavi says. The ones at Rahat are closer to settlement, but do stand alone. The newly unearthed one could have been used by several dozen worshippers at a time.
She adds that in urban areas, one finds more early mosques but this was hinterland, and people didn’t move to farm in the Negev because that was their dream. Nicer places in Israel were “full” and they had no choice, Kogan-Zehavi explains.
This leads us to the Byzantine manse by which the second early mosque in Rahat had been built, which was first reported in 2020. It was an extraordinary structure for the Negev, more akin to a small palace. Around 30 by 30 meters (nearly 100 by 100 feet) in area, it featured lovely frescoed walls – a thing not found before in ancient domiciles in this region. It had halls with stone pavement, some paved with imported marble (Israel has enormous amounts of chalkstone and limestone but no marble worthy of mention), plastered floors and was divided into sections.
Remains of fine tableware and precious glassware were found, also indicative of wealth. This structure was not a fortified citadel built to repel invaders from the desert, though it may have had a small guardhouse, plausibly built to deter thieves. Not one but two wells were dug by this mansion. A quick dig showed that the western section had large, elaborate rooms that could have served for hosting because of the great breeze, the archaeologists say. The eastern section also featured a large hall.
And what does this mini-palace in seventh-century Rahat indicate? That somebody had money. In one section Kogan-Zehavi and the team discovered two ovens, one of which was far too big to have served just for the culinary arts. Right by it was a water cistern, which leads her to theorize just how the occupants got so rich. They were making soap, she postulates.
“Soap made from olive oil is one of the industries that Islam brought to civilisation. And Israel, according to Islamic historians, is one of the areas where soap was made and exported throughout the Islamic world,” she says. “The actual recipe for the soap would be kept secret and passed down through generations, and made some families very rich.”
It bears adding that soap was not invented in the Islamic period, early or otherwise, it goes back to Babylonian and Roman times. But what the earliest soap was used for is not clear; it may have been to clean clothes, not the body. And the word soap apparently derives from the Celtic word, sipa.
Why would anybody build a soap factory in the Negev of all places? Possibly because their recipe included a wild herb plant indigenous to the Negev – and the site is near the South Hebron Hills, where there was heavy production of olive oil during the period in question.
“You don’t need quality oil to make soap. You can use the residue,” Kogan-Zehavi explains.
Yet this lovely manse was abandoned, for reasons we do not know.
No evidence of destruction, violence or hostilities has been found, Kogan-Zehavi says. None. It seems to have been abandoned, after which the mosque arose at the site. On a nearby hilltop, the archaeologists found other well-to-do estates that were constructed in a completely different manner – apparently mudbrick-walled rooms surrounding a courtyard – and seem to be from a later time.
In any case, the sites in this area operated continuously from the Byzantine to the early Islamic period and were then all abandoned in the ninth century, after 150 to 200 years. The cause was not marauders or war, and likely not even a passing pestilence, because the signs all show the people packed up in a leisurely and orderly manner before decamping, Kogan-Zehavi notes.
“They packed up all their goodies and left. So there isn’t much left for us to analyze. We don’t know where they went,” she says.
So the new discoveries shed a little more light, but not much at this point, on the relations between the late Byzantine Christians and early Islamic rulers in the Negev. The evidence by and large indicates that relations were decent – as said, there is no sign of aggression in the archaeological record.
“We know that nearby there was a monastery that operated until the seventh century, and was abandoned. There’s no sign of violence there either, and it seems to have continued to operate under Islamic rule,” Kogan-Zehavi says. “But there was abandonment at some stage. We also do find farms that continued to operate from the Byzantine to the Islamic periods, but we can’t say if the occupants converted. And we also find new sites from the Islamic period that aren’t built atop older structures: they show expansion, the gain of new territory.”
Aboriginal Artwork In The Kimberley Could Be Among Oldest In The World, Scientists Say
Archaeologists and Aboriginal elders are hoping the most comprehensive study of rock art in the Kimberley region will confirm the images are among the oldest made by humans anywhere in the world. More than a dozen scientists took part in two field trips to study remote faces in Dambimangari and Balanggarra country.
They used pioneering techniques to collect and analyse hundreds of samples to narrow down the timeframes in which the striking images of people, animals and shells were made. Professor Peter Veth, from the University of Western Australia, said they were expecting to have the first results through by the end of the year.
“We expect some of those dates to be old, and some of them will be extremely old,” he said.
“We believe that this art will be as old, if not older, than that art in Europe, and that will make the Kimberley and all of its art, with its living, cultural connections, of world significance.”
Establishing firm dates for rock art is notoriously difficult, but dates of around 40,000 years have been recorded for images in Indonesia and Spain. In Australia, dating has been relatively limited, but dates of between 13,000 to 15,000 years old have been recorded in Queensland and up to 28,000 years in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory.
Given that Aboriginal people are believed to have arrived in northern Australia up to 50,000 years ago, Professor Veth said there was potential for older dates to emerge. Professor Veth said the Kimberley region had one of the most diverse and abundant collections of Indigenous rock art in Australia.
“There are probably no reliable dates for the Kimberley, and yet here is one of the largest rock art galleries in the world, and probably the earliest concentration of figurative art anywhere in the world,” he said.
“We’re literally on the cusp now of dating it properly now, with all these different techniques, for the first time, so it’s incredibly exciting … it’s a bit of a cyclonic event.
“I think there will be surprises, things we totally don’t expect.”
The team used several different dating techniques on each painting to come up with the most reliable set of dates possible.
Their focus was on analysing the tiny samples of material taken from both under and on top of the painting, to narrow down the period in which it was created. It was a painstaking process for scientists like Helen Green, from the University of Melbourne.
The geologist pioneered a technique to date tiny crusts of dirt that form over an image in the hundreds, or thousands of years since it was created.
“We can see where a crust has formed over the squiggles of pigment, so we can use a small chisel to chip off a little piece,” she said.
“It will let us know that the art underneath that is older than the age that we get for that crust.”
She said she was now in lockdown at the university’s laboratories processing hundreds of tiny samples.
“You’re just really eager once you’ve collected all the samples to get in the lab and get the results, so yes it’s a really exciting time for us,” Ms Green said.
Watching closely are the Dambimangari and Balanggarra people.
Members of their ranger groups accompanied the researchers on their field trips to learn more about their sacred sites and ensure they were not damaged.
For young Balanggarra ranger Scott Unhango, the field trip was the first opportunity he had to visit rock art sites he had heard about in stories.
“I find it … interesting,” he said. “The powerful men, the great leaders, put these paintings on these walls and rocks.”
“When you come out here, you can sit down and listen and learn from our people and others, throughout the Kimberley … listen [to] what they got to tell you, and how important the stories are and the land and the people.”
For many elders, pinpointing creation dates for their art is of little concern. Elders like Balanggarra man Augustine Unhango have their own deeply felt understanding of how and when the images were made. But he said he recognised the value in documenting the rock art sites for posterity.
“It’s good to be teaching our kids as they’re growing up about the sacred places and the rock art, and to keep track of our sacred sites.”
Stone tools found in the Philippines predate the arrival of modern humans to the islands by roughly 600,000 years — but researchers aren’t sure who made them. The eye-popping artefacts, unveiled on Wednesday in Nature, were abandoned on a river floodplain on the island of Luzon beside the butchered carcass of a rhinoceros. The ancient toolmakers were clearly angling for a meal.
Two of the rhino’s limb bones are smashed in as if someone was trying to harvest and eat the marrow inside. Cut marks left behind by stone blades crisscross the rhino’s ribs and ankle, a clear sign that someone used tools to strip the carcass of meat.
But the age of the remains makes them especially remarkable: The carved bones are most likely between 631,000 and 777,000 years old, with researchers’ best estimate coming in around 709,000 years old. The research — partially funded by the National Geographic Society — pushes back occupation of the Philippines to before the known origin of our species, Homo sapiens. The next-earliest evidence of Philippine hominins comes from Luzon’s Callao Cave, in the form of a 67,000-year-old foot bone.
“It was surprising to find such an old peopling of the Philippines,” says lead study author Thomas Ingicco, an archaeologist with France’s National Museum of Natural History. While the researchers don’t know which archaic cousin of ours butchered the rhino, the find will likely cause a stir among people studying the human story in the South Pacific — especially those wondering how early hominins got to the Philippines in the first place.
“I think it’s pretty spectacular,” says Michael Petraglia, a paleoanthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History who was not involved in the work.
“While there had been claims for early hominins in places like the Philippines, there wasn’t any good evidence until now.”
Dating With Confidence
Several of the habitable islands across the South Pacific have long been hemmed off by swaths of open ocean, so it was thought that humans’ ancient cousins couldn’t have made it to them without knowing how to sail. But as the saying goes, life finds a way. In 2004, researchers unveiled Homo floresiensis, which lived on the isolated island of Flores for hundreds of thousands of years. In 2016, researchers also found stone tools on Sulawesi, an island north of Flores. As National Geographic reported at the time, the Sulawesi tools date to at least 118,000 years ago, or some 60,000 years before the first anatomically modern humans arrived.
“It’s really, really exciting — it’s now becoming increasingly clear that ancient forms of hominins were able to make significant deep-sea crossings,” says Adam Brumm, a paleoanthropologist at Griffith University who studies H. floresiensis.
In search of similar sites, Ingicco and Dutch biologist John de Vos went to Kalinga, a site in northern Luzon with a reputation for yielding ancient bones. Researchers had found animal bones and stone tools there since the 1950s, but those scattered remains couldn’t be dated. To prove that ancient hominins had lived at Kalinga, de Vos and Ingicco needed to find artefacts that were still buried. In 2014, the team dug a test pit at Kalinga about seven feet to the side. Almost immediately, the researchers started finding bones that belonged to a long-extinct rhinoceros. Soon, they had uncovered an entire skeleton, as well as stone tools left behind by its butchers.
To get an age range for the site, the team measured the sediments and the rhino’s teeth to see how much radiation they had naturally absorbed over time. In addition, they measured the natural uranium content of one of the rhino’s teeth, since that element decays like clockwork into thorium. In the mud around the rhino’s bones, they also found a speck of melted glass from an asteroid impact dated to about 781,000 years ago.
“Nowadays, it’s necessary that you try various methods to nail the dates because, in the past, there have been so many dates that have proved unreliable,” says study coauthor Gerrit van den Bergh, a University of Wollongong sedimentologist.
The Unusual Suspects
The list of possible toolmakers includes the Denisovans, a ghost lineage of hominins known from DNA and a handful of Siberian fossils. The leading candidate, though, is the early hominin Homo erectus, since it definitely made its way into southeast Asia. The Indonesian island of Java has H. erectus fossils that are more than 700,000 years old.
Ingicco’s team suggests that the butchers may have been Luzon’s version of H. floresiensis, which may have descended from a population of H. Erectus that ended up on Flores. Over millennia, the H. Erectus there may have evolved to live efficiently on a predator-free island, shrinking in a process called island dwarfism. In 2010, a team led by University of Philippines Diliman archaeologist Armand Mijares found the Callao Cave foot bone, which has measurements that overlap with both modern humans and H. floresiensis. Was this Luzon hominin a homegrown hobbit, descended from H. Erectus castaways that arrived hundreds of thousands of years before? It’s too soon to say.
“We don’t have any information about 600,000 years of prehistory, [so] it’s a reach,” says Petraglia.
Riding Out the Storm?
Whoever they were, the toolmakers’ ancestors may have taken one of two migration routes into the Philippines, according to Ingicco’s team: a west-to-east route from Borneo or Palawan, or a north-to-south route from China and Taiwan. But it’s an open question how these hominins crossed the open ocean.
It’s tempting to think that our extinct cousins used rudimentary boats: When news of the Callao Cave remains broke in 2010, some experts chalked up their presence to ancient seafarers. But the idea is still considered farfetched. Rhinos and elephant-like creatures also made it to Luzon, and they clearly didn’t build boats.
The Philippines’ Tubbataha is host to 600 species of fish, 13 species of whales and dolphins, and 360 species of coral. The reef’s isolated location, combined with committed management, has left it in a nearly pristine state.
Perhaps large animals and the butchers’ ancestors accidentally rode to Luzon on floating masses of mud and aquatic plants, torn off coastlines by large storms. Regional tsunamis may have also washed some terrified H. Erectus out to sea. As they clung to floating debris, they may have inadvertently island-hopped.
“Water dispersal by H. Erectus is accidental — there’s no Manifest Destiny, there’s no plot,” says Russell Ciochon, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Iowa at Iowa City. There are also outstanding questions about what happened when and if descendants of these early hominins made contact with the first modern humans to reach Luzon:
“Did our species come face to face with these creatures? What is the nature of that contact?” wonders Brumm.
These and other questions remain to be answered, but researchers say that study of the human story in Luzon — and the South Pacific writ large — is only just beginning.
Dutch Archaeologists Unearth 2000-Year-Old Roman Temple Complex
The excavation was carried out in the village of Herwin-Hemeling situated in the eastern central province of Gelderland close to the Netherland-German border, also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site
A 2,000-year-old Roman temple complex in Netherland was uncovered by Dutch archaeologists. The archaeologists belonged to the private archaeological consulting firm RAAP.
These religious relics belonged to Netherlands’ Roman era. These were the first actual ruins of the temple found in the entire country. A part of it belonged to the northernmost territory of the legendary Roman Empire which was very powerful.
The excavation was carried out in the village of Herwin-Hemeling situated in the eastern central province of Gelderland close to the Netherland-German border. The site was situated close to Roman Limes (Limes Germanicus) UNESCO World Heritage Site.
According to a report, the Cultural Heritage Agency in a press release said,” The remains of statues of deities, reliefs and painted plasterwork have all been discovered at the site.
One particularly remarkable feature is the discovery of several complete votive stones, dedicated to various gods and goddesses. This is a highly unusual find in the Netherlands, but also in international terms.”
As per the findings, Roman soldiers erected votive stones which were small altars that were found at the Herwin-Hemeling site. These votive stones paid homage to Hercules Magusanus, a hybrid figure which represented Greek-Roman Hercules and a mythic hero, Magusanus – who was worshipped by the German tribes who had occupied the area during the Roman era.
Other artefacts that were discovered were Jupiter and Serapis, a syncretic deity which represented the king Roman gods Jupiter and the Egyptian god known as Serapis. Along with these, Mercury, a Roman god was also erected. He was a messenger between the realm of the living and the land of the dead.
Not just statues alone, archaeologists also discovered deep pits where Roman soldiers lit large sacrificial fires. They also uncovered inscribed roof tiles, plasterwork decorated with painted images and other broken remnants of limestone sculptures.
Along with religious findings, other military objects were also discovered like battle armour, horse harnesses and spears and lances.
Archaeologists were aware of the possible Roman settlement in the area before they began the excavation process. In 2021, archaeologists discovered a few ancient Roman artefacts there.
According to the Dutch national cultural heritage agency, archaeologists informed the authorities of the possibility of the discovery of artefacts on a larger scale. The research team discovered remains of two Roman-era temples which dated long back to the first and fourth centuries.
Archaeologists uncovered a large Gallo-Roman temple on a hill which displayed a tiled roof and brightly painted walls. The second temple which was discovered was smaller and was situated a few metres from the first temple. The area suggested an important and pious gathering place for Roman soldiers.
Genomes Offer Clues to Korea’s Three Kingdoms Period
An international team led by The University of Vienna and the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology in collaboration with the National Museum of Korea has successfully sequenced and studied the whole genome of eight 1,700-year-old individuals dated to the Three Kingdoms period of Korea (approx. 57 BC-668 AD).
The first published genomes from this period in Korea bring key information for the understanding of Korean population history.
The Team has been led by Pere Gelabert and Prof. Ron Pinhasi of the University of Vienna together with Prof. Jong Bhak and Asta Blazyte from the UNIST and Prof. Kidong Bae from the National Museum of Korea.
The study, published in Current Biology, showed that ancient Koreans from the Gaya confederacy were more diverse than the present-day Korean population.
The eight ancient skeletal remains used for DNA extraction and bioinformatic analyses came from the Daesung-dong tumuli, the iconic funerary complex of the Gaya confederacy, and from the Yuha-ri shell mound; both archaeological sites located in Gimhae, South Korea.
Some of the eight studied individuals were identified as tomb owners, others as human sacrifices, and one, a child, was buried in a shell mound, a typical funerary monument of Southeast Asia that is not related to privileged individuals.
All burial sites are typical for the Gaya region funerary practices in AD 300-500.
“The individual genetic differences are not correlated to the grave typology, indicating that the social status in the Three Kingdoms Korea would not be related to genetic ancestry.
We have observed that there is no clear genetic difference between the grave owners and the human sacrifices” explains Anthropologist Pere Gelabert.
Six out of eight ancient individuals were genetically closer to modern Koreans, modern Japanese, Kofun Japanese (Kofun genomes are contemporaneous with individuals from our study), and Neolithic Koreans.
The genomes of the remaining two were slightly closer to modern Japanese and ancient Japanese Jomons. “This means that in the past, the Korean peninsula showed more genetic diversity than in our times,” says Gelabert.
Modern Koreans, on the other hand, appear to have lost this Jomon-related genetic component owing to the relative genetic isolation that followed the Three Kingdoms period. These results support a well-documented post- Three Kingdoms period of Korean history, suggesting that Koreans of that time were intermixing within the peninsula, and their genetic differences were diminishing until the Korean population became homogeneous as we know it today.
A detailed DNA-based facial feature prediction for the eight genomes showed that the Three Kingdoms period Koreans resembled modern Koreans.
This is the first instance of publishing an ancient individual’s face prediction using DNA-only in a scientific journal. This approach may create a precedent for other ancient genome studies to predict facial features when the skulls are extremely degraded.