Exploring Genetics and Ancient Diseases – Jorvik Viking Centre

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Model of DNA at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, with thanks to Steven2005 via Creative Commons

A continuation on my experience at the Jorvik Viking Centre was the particularly exciting bioarchaeology and anthropology section! After the ‘ride’ through Viking Jorvik (mentioned in my earlier posts) I arrived at the exhibition entitled ‘Exploring Genetics’ where I learned about how archaeologists can create a genetic profile of an individual from as little as a hairball!

In 2010 scientists managed to successfully map the first ancient human genome – a 4000 year old hairball revealed to be from a man from Greenland who was dark eyed, prone to dry ear wax and balding! The hair used in the study was recovered from Northern Greenland in the 80s and belonged to a young member of the now extinct Saqqaq Culture – the earliest inhabitants of Greenland!

Genetic markers can also be extracted from bones to tell whether or not a viking could handle milk or strong beer and the colour of his cattle. Modern day genetics techniques can reveal not only where ancient peoples came from but also what they looked like and how they may have lived!

Disease and DNA

Tuberculosis was studied in the skeletons from excavation sites globally for over a century. It has been identified that destruction in the spine bones are related to damage from TB but other bone damage may also be related to TB. A range of evidence of disease existence in skeletons has been used but in the last 15 years scientists have turned towards the analysis of DNA of ancient bacteria causing TB from bone samples – so we are now able to work out what strain of TB was around and how other trains of bacteria have evolved through time. This could eventually explain today why certain people don’t respond effectively to antibiotic treatment.

Skeletal indicators of disease include spinal anomalies, pitting in the skull to indicate scalp irritations, non-fusion of the scapula indicating intensive training in adolescence (we see similar cases in boxers today) and distorted joints indicate crush injury.

Other ways of examining what people ate is to well, scour through their rubbish! Digging through Viking cesspits, examining skeletons in chemical analysis of bones and teeth such as carbon and nitrogen stable isotope analysis of bone collagen can tell us whether the person was mainly fish or meat (a person who ate fish would have a skeleton that contained heavier isotopes of carbon). Someone who eats mostly animal products or milk will have heavier isotopes of nitrogen in their bones over someone who is vegetarian.

The Coppergate isotope study revealed that contrary to the common belief that the Vikings mostly feasted on meat, they in fact lead a mostly pescatarian diet – mostly fish. Carbon and Nitrogen stable isotope analysis on three of the Viking age skeletons involved extraction of a small piece of rib from each skeleton to analysis the collagen protein present. The samples were analysed using an isotope ratio mass-spectrometer.

The results were then plotted against isotopic results of populations from other periods in York. The results showed that the Vikings ate pretty much the same thing as the anglo saxons (7th to 8th centuries AD).

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