Friday, January 22, 2016

DNA, Headless Skeletons of York

We've been learning quite a bit about humanity's family history recently: thanks partly to our increasingly-detailed knowledge of DNA and the human genome.

I'll be taking a look at what scientists are learning about Roman Britain, Anglo-Saxons, and headless skeletons.
  1. English: Anglo-Saxon, and a Whole Lot More
  2. Immigrants in Roman Times
I'll also indulge in an uncharacteristically-terse (for me) explanation of what science is doing in a 'religious' blog.

Using Our Brains: Or Not

I think the universe is billions, not thousands, of years old; Earth isn't flat; Adam and Eve weren't German; poetry isn't science; and thinking is not a sin.

That's because I'm a Catholic.

I think the universe follows knowable rules: which means we can learn how it works — and THIS IS OKAY. We're supposed to study this universe, and use what we learn. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 32; 339, 2292, 2295)

Scientific discoveries invite us "to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator."(Catechism, 283)

I've got free will, so I could decide that I'd rather ignore this wonder-filled creation: or indulge in whatever whims grabbed me. I'm better off if I think about what I do, though, and that's another topic. (Catechism, 1730-1738, 1762-1770)

The folks whose bones were disinterred for this research have been dead for a millennium or two, but the bones are still human remains. I hope what's left of their bodies were "treated with respect and charity." (Catechism, 2300-2301)

I'm not worried about 'Revenge of the Mummy Returns' spooks wreaking hideous vengeance on the Godless scientists. That might make a nifty movie ‐ it has, actually, quite often. And that's yet another topic.

I had a point, lurking somewhere in that verbiage. Got it! Superstition is a bad idea, and against the rules. (Catechism, 2110-2111, 2138)

Respect for the dead doesn't mean that autopsies are wrong. (Catechism, 2301)

I've nattered on about the faith, science, autopsies, and Mr. Squibbs, before. A lot. (August 28, 2015; January 9, 2015; August 15, 2014)

1. English: Anglo-Saxon, and a Whole Lot More

(From Duncan Sayer, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("This triple burial from Oakington, Cambridgeshire, includes metal and amber grave goods"
(BBC News))
"English DNA 'one-third' Anglo-Saxon"
Paul Rincon, BBC News (January 19, 2016)

"The present-day English owe about a third of their ancestry to the Anglo-Saxons, according to a new study.

"Scientists sequenced genomes from 10 skeletons unearthed in eastern England and dating from the Iron Age through to the Anglo-Saxon period.

"Many of the Anglo-Saxon samples appeared closer to modern Dutch and Danish people than the Iron Age Britons did...."
Anglo-Saxons almost certainly didn't call themselves Anglo-Saxons, or didn't until recently.

They spoke Old English for the most part, "Angul-Seaxan" is Old English for Latin "Angli-Saxones," the Venerable Bede called at least some of them Anglorum, and Gildas called them Saxones. They're folks who lived along the western European coast when the Roman Empire broke up.

We're still sorting out exactly what happened. Detailed records from that era of Western history are, understandably, a tad spotty. Apparently British rulers like Vortigern may or may not have invited Germanic troops as reinforcements in conflicts with Picts and Scots.

Either way, the Germanic warriors decided that eastern England looked better than where they'd been living — brought their families over, and were 'allowed' to stay.

Centuries later, Charles the Simple of West Francia struck a similar deal with Göngu Hrólfr.

Folks speaking my language call him Rollo these days: Göngu Hrólfr, I mean. It's what happened when Hrólfr got Latinized, and then spoken by folks speaking post-Elizabethan English. Hrólfr is still a not-uncommon name, but it's spelled and pronounced Rolf now.

Where was I? Anglorum and Saxones, the Venerable Bede, Gildas, Vortigern. Right.

'Anglo Saxons' started moving to England something like 15 centuries back now.

Assorted Germanic folks kept coming, and then from 1016 to 1066 another bunch invaded England: the Danes and Normans. Normans are still running the place, and I've said that before. (December 11, 2015)

Folks from various spots in northwestern Europe aren't nearly as different from each other as some of us imagine.

These scientists focused on a few rare mutations that show up about twice as often in the old Celtic-British population as they do in these upstart Angli-Saxones.

And I am not going to get started on the Verden incident and what happened after folks on part of my family tree started invading folks on another part. (August 9, 2015)


2. Immigrants in Roman Times

(From York Archaeological Trust, via National Geographic, used w/o permission.)
("Geneticists sampled the dense inner-ear bone to extract ancient DNA from the skulls of several Roman-age skeletons discovered at Driffield Terrace in York"
(National Geographic))
"DNA Reveals Far-Off Origins of Ancient 'Gladiators' "
DNA testing is telling scientists more about the origins of a group of headless Romans.
Andrew Curry, National Geographic (January 19, 2016)

"People in the Roman Empire really got around.

"Evidence from a Roman-era cemetery in York, England shows that the city—once a major outpost on Rome’s distant frontier—was home to both locals and to immigrants from thousands of miles away.

"In a paper published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, Trinity College Dublin geneticist Dan Bradley and his colleagues analyze DNA preserved in the dense inner ear bones of seven skulls found in the cemetery. They report that six of the skeletons have DNA matching people living in modern-day Wales. But to researchers' surprise, one of the men came from a long way away—the other end of the Roman Empire, in fact.

" 'The nearest genetic matches were from Palestine or Saudi Arabia,' Bradley says. 'He definitely didn't come from Europe.'..."
The University of Reading's Gundula Müldner analyzed chemical signatures in the subject's teeth — discovering that he was from somewhere "arid and hot," as she told National Geographic. She says the best fit is the Nile Valley, or a very similar environment: certainly somewhere in the Near East.

This isn't the first time someone from elsewhere in the Empire ended up in where England is now. A woman from Africa, wearing an ivory bracelet, was buried in York during the Roman occupation.

Ebocarum, Jórvík, York, and Headless Skeletons

(From York Archaeological Trust, via National Geographic, used w/o permission.)

The decapitated skeletons are from a cemetery on the outskirts of Eboracum, a provincial capital which became Jórvík, ruled by folks with names like Halfdan Ragnarsson, Guthred, and Ragnall ua Ímair. The locals call it York these days.

Two Roman emperors died there while it was still called Eboracum: Septimius Severus and Constantius Chlorus

The fellows headlined by National Geographic weren't emperors.

The odds are pretty good that they were soldiers or gladiators. They were all above average height, more muscular than usual, and under age 45 when they died. Many showed signs of healed injuries, including one who had been bitten by something along the lines of a lion or bear.

They weren't all from the Near East. Earlier analysis of bones and teeth showed that some grew up in colder climates: maybe where Germany and Poland are now. Some of them had eaten millet as children: a grain we think wasn't available in Britain at the time.

This research is a big deal, since it helps us understand how folks who weren't emperors or senators lived during Roman times. One thing we've learned is that folks moved around: a lot, in some cases.


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