A team of researchers announced a surprising discovery during a scholarly presentation in Toronto last Friday. The research team, based at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, has been helping to excavate an ancient Roman cemetery at the site of Vagnari in southern Italy. Led by Professor Tracy Prowse, they’ve been analyzing the skeletons found there by performing DNA and oxygen isotope tests.
The surprise is that the DNA tests show that one of the skeletons, a man, has an East Asian ancestry – on his mother’s side. This appears to be the first time that a skeleton with an East Asian ancestry has been discovered in the Roman Empire.
The man with East Asian ancestry may well have been a slave himself. He lived sometime in the first to second century AD, in the early days of the Roman Empire. Much of his skeleton (pictured here) has not survived. The man’s surviving grave goods consist of a single pot (which archaeologists used to date the burial). To top things off someone was buried on top of him - with a superior collection of grave goods.
The researchers determined his ancestry by analyzing his mitochondrial DNA – material that is passed down from mother to offspring.
As DNA is passed down from generation to generation there are mutations. People who are related to each other will have similar changes – allowing researchers to put them into broad “haplogroups,” that tend to relate to geographical areas.
This technique has been used to map the spread of humans throughout the world.
The man found in the cemetery has DNA that belongs to what scientists called haplogroup D. “The haplogroup itself has this East Asian origin, it’s not something that’s found in past European populations - the origin of this haplogroup is East Asia,” said Dr. Barta.
January 29, 2010
Mongoloid mtDNA in Imperial-era Italy
Ambassador or slave? East Asian skeleton discovered in Vagnari Roman Cemetery