Friday, November 18, 2011

Roman DNA project gives voice to the silent majority

Roman DNA project gives voice to the silent majority | Past Horizons
http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/11/2011/roman-dna-project-gives-voice-to-the-silent-majority

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A new project to carry out DNA analysis on a group of skeletons who were immigrants to Rome, has been created by Kristina Killgrove, a biological anthropologist from Vanderbilt University.

Kristina Killgrove Kristina has been raising money by Crowd-Funding in order to carry the project out and she has now exceeded the $6000 required to carry out the basic analysis of at least 20 individuals (the immigrants to Rome that she found through Sr/O isotope analysis). However, every additional contribution above the original target amount will help to test more samples.

A unique project This project will be the first to study the DNA of immigrants to Rome and will help rewrite the history of everyday life there.

At the simplest level, each skeleton reveals key information about the person – male or female, height, age of death, and long-term diseases, and these can all be found through observation of the bones.


Bones and teeth hold additional information about diet and place of origin and this has to be obtained through chemical analysis of isotopes and DNA. Each one of our physical bodies is formed by the food we consume, the activities we engage in, the geographies we have passed through, and the important milestones in our lives.

Why the Romans?

Ad Meskens. Wikimedia Creative Commons Licence The Roman Empire has been studied for centuries through the histories of Livy and poetry of Virgil, through tombstones that proclaim a person’s name and age at death, through mausoleums full of artefacts.

However, it is only recently that study has been carried out on the actual skeletons of ancient Romans in order to learn about the people who were never mentioned in the written record and could not afford to commemorate their relatives’ deaths by placing jewellery and fancy pottery into their graves.

Up until now, most information known about the Romans comes from studying the lives of the wealthy upper classes – the small minority of the population that controlled the Empire. However, Kristina wants to know more about the silent majority – the lower classes and slaves who lived at subsistence level. She wants to change our approach to Roman history and by using skeletal data concerning age, sex, height, disease and diet, added to the study of historical records, art, and artefacts it will help to build up a better picture of the ordinary people of Rome.

Her previous research project involved analysing over two hundred skeletons from two cemeteries in ancient Rome. Using carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis she learned that most Romans were eating a diet made up of wheat, barley, and some aquatic resources. By also utilisng strontium and oxygen isotope analysis it became apparent that about one-third of the individuals studied had immigrated to Rome after childhood, but the analysis could not reveal where they had originated from.

The cemeteries Casal Bertone dates from about the 2nd-3rd centuries AD and is located very close to an industrial complex that was either a fullery (cloth-cleaning) or a tannery (leather-working). There was no skeletal evidence to suggest that the people buried there worked within these industries – most of them were relatively healthy showing little evidence of disease, they were fairly tall and had a reasonably balanced diet. The isotope studies showed that many of them were immigrants to Rome, but it was impossible to say whether they were free or enslaved. There were almost no grave goods, but many of the adult burials were in the a cappuccina style in which roof tiles were placed over the body to form a little house, and some of the children were buried within or covered by large transport amphorae.

Castellaccio Europarco in contrast, was located in an agricultural area and much more haphazard than Casal Bertone – people were buried along an ancient road, the Via Laurentina, about 12 km south of the city walls of Rome. Burials here were also very basic – simple pits containing no grave goods. The majority of them date to the Imperial period (1st-3rd centuries AD), but there are older burials from the 4th century BC.

Castellaccio Europarco is an interesting site because there are actually three different time periods of burial, but there were fewer skeletons than at Casal Bertone. Isotope analysis showed that the people buried there were also immigrants with reasonable health and were actually taller than the ones buried at Casal Bertone.

These two comparisons show an interesting trend in the Roman suburbs – the closer to Rome, the shorter the population.

You can help Skeletal analysis of ancient Romans is a relatively new research area, and Kristina’s project will be the first DNA analysis of people actually from the city of Rome. Ancient DNA analysis is extremely costly, so she is seeking donors who share a vision of rewriting Roman history using modern technology. To thank individuals for contributions to this exciting new line of research, there are a variety of rewards and you will also be able to follow progress through exclusive Twitter and blog feeds not available to the general public, getting real-time updates and learning the DNA results along with Killgrove.