Greek Shipwreck Bones May Yield 2000-Year-Old DNA

By Angela Laguipo , Sep 20, 2016 06:12 PM EDT

A team of archeologists discovered a human skeleton during the excavation of the famous Antikythera Shipwreck that sank off the Greek Island in the Aegean Sea almost 2,100 years ago. The discovery of the human bones could shed light on the lives of people who lived during that era.

Led by archeologists and technical experts at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, the team recovered humans bones including a human skull, jaw, teeth, long bones of the arms and legs, ribs and other remains.

"Archaeologists study the human past through the objects our ancestors created," said Brendan Foley, a marine archaeologist from the WHOI. 

"With the Antikythera Shipwreck, we can now connect directly with this person who sailed and died aboard the Antikythera ship," he added.

The Antikythera Shipwreck (circa 65 B.C.) is the most famous in the ancient world. It was first found in 1900 by Greek sponge divers at estimated 150 feet depth. It contains marble and bronze sculptures, gold coins, jewelry and glass objects.

However, though the shipwreck was unveiled more than a century ago, modern techniques in archaeology were not applied until the '70s when Jacques Cousteau and his team found human remains on the ship.

The skeleton discovered on Aug. 31 could shed light on the way of living of humans more than 2,000 years ago. It will also help scientists understand who would have been on board the ship. Hannes Schroeder from the Natural History Museum of Denmark, an ancient DNA expert, rushed to the site as soon as he heard of the discovery. Once permitted by Greek authorities, he will obtain DNA samples for analysis and if there is enough DNA left on the bones, he might be able to identify the geographic origin of the person aboard the ship.

The scientists said that it is rare and uncommon for skeletons to be found in shipwrecks. This is because victims are usually swept away or eaten by marine animals. However, on this shipwreck, the ship is too large that some victims may have been trapped inside.

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