Archaeologists discovered a human skeleton on the site of a shipwreck that happened 2,000 years ago. The merchant ship wrecked off the Greek island of Antikythera two millennia ago but scientists hope to be able to retrieve valuable data from the DNA of the skeleton, announced Monday the journal Nature.
It’s not the first time that this shipwreck has made the news. In 1900 the mysterious Antikythera mechanism, considered the oldest astronomical calculator, was discovered on the site of the wreck. The ship, dating from the 1st century BC, was excavated several times before but a new campaign is underway.
The bones, well preserved, were discovered on August 31st, buried under 50 centimeters of potsherds and sand. Archaeologists discovered a part of the skull, three teeth, two arm bones, several ribs and both femurs, which appear to be from the same person.
We are delighted, says Brendan Foley, a diver archaeologist from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts (USA).
An initial review suggests that the bones are those of a young man, says Hannes Schroeder, an expert on ancient DNA analysis of the Denmark Natural History Museum in Copenhagen. The bones do not seem to be 2000 years old, he notes.
Scientists will now be searching for DNA. The latter could provide guidance on the color of hair, eyes, or on the geographical or ethnic origin of the individual.
Was he a crew member, a passenger, or a slave?
The bones that have been discovered 50 meters deep were surrounded by rusted iron objects that have not yet been identified.
Hannes Schroeder is confident that the scientists will be able to recover analyzable DNA since a bony part behind the ear was found. This part of the body preserves DNA much better than other parts of the skeleton.
If there is any DNA, it should be there, he said.
Hannes Schroeder is now awaiting approval by the Greek authorities to begin analysis.
If DNA analysis is possible, it would be the first to be performed on a victim of a shipwreck that happened in antiquity. Usually the bodies are driven off and eaten by the fish. Bones were found in the 1970s on the shipwreck site, but they have not been subject to DNA research.
Meanwhile, the skeleton already has a nickname given by the team of archaeologists. They called it Pamphilos, a name on a glass of wine found on the wreck site.
Antikythera is a small island located southeast of the Peloponnese, between Kythira and Crete.
The ship was carrying luxury items, presumably for a Roman clientele.
In a century of excavations, hundreds of objects have been discovered on the site of the shipwreck, including bronze and marble statues, filling several rooms at the Archaeological Museum of Athens.
But the most famous discovery remains the Antikythera mechanism, which allowed to calculate the position of certain stars and predict eclipses with great accuracy.
The oldest modern human DNA ever found is about 45,000 years old.