SCIENCE

2000-Year-Old Human Skeleton Found On Famed Shipwreck

The ancient bones survived "against all odds."

20/09/2016 6:50 AM AEST | Updated 20/09/2016 6:50 AM AEST
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Brett Seymour EUAWHOIARGO
Archaeologists excavate the Antikythera shipwrecks' skeletal remains.

In a find that could yield important new insights into life during ancient times, a human skeleton dating back more than two millennia has been recovered from the celebrated Antikythera shipwreck.

Researchers found the skeleton last August during their ongoing excavation of the wreck, which lies on the ocean floor off the Greek island of Antikythera in the Aegean Sea. 

“Against all odds, the bones survived over 2,000 years at the bottom of the sea, and they appear to be in fairly good condition,” Dr. Hannes Schroeder of the Natural History Museum in Copenhagen, Denmark, and an expert on DNA, said in a news release.

Brett Seymour EUAWHOIARGO
Skull in situ on the Antikythera shipwreck during excavation.

The find consists of a partial skull with three teeth, arm and leg bones and several pieces of rib, the journal Nature reported. They’re the first bones to be recovered from the wreck during the era of DNA sequencing.

Schroeder called the discovery “incredible,” and Dr. Brendan Foley of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and a member of the research team, seems to share that assessment.

“This is the most exciting scientific discovery we’ve made here,” Foley told the Guardian, adding that he believed the passenger or crew member “was trapped in the ship when it went down and he must have been buried very rapidly or the bones would have gone by now.”

Brett Seymour EUAWHOIARGO
The team conducting research on the wreck found a nearly intact skull.

Some of the bones remain on the seafloor, but others have been brought to the surface for analysis.

If the research team, which is led by experts from Woods Hole and the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, can recover DNA from the skeleton, they may be able to confirm the individual’s gender and hair and eye color, as well as his or her ethnicity and geographic origin, according to Nature.

Brett Seymour EUAWHOIARGO
Antikythera Project codirectors Theotokis Theodoulou and Brendan Foley inspect the skeletal remains: skull and upper jaw with teeth, two femurs, radius and ulna arm bones and ribs.

The wreck, which is believed to be of a Greek trading or cargo ship, is the largest ancient shipwreck ever discovered. Since its discovery by sponge divers in 1900, divers have recovered a wealth of extraordinary artifacts, including glassware, gold jewelry, marble statues, an ancient weapon known as a “dolphin” and the so-called Antikythera Mechanism (see below).

The clocklike device, now held at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, is believed to have been used to predict celestial events and is considered the world’s first computer. 

Heritage Images via Getty Images
The Antikythera mechanism, 205 BC. Found in the collection of National Archaeological Museum, Athens.
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