Digging the Dead: Seeking Answers from Ancient DNA
In the remains of a church and monastery in Italy that goes back to the 11th century, Clark Larsen and his colleagues are uncovering human remains that give new insight into diseases and biology, ancient and relatively recent. Via the recovery and study of ancient DNA from the bones, teeth and soil from graves of the victims of the cholera epidemic of the mid-19th century, they anticipate the development of new perspectives on the disease and why it was so remarkably devastating in Italy and around the world. This excavation is from San Pietro a Pozzeveri, a church and monastery located in the province of Tuscany in northern Italy. Dating from A.D. 1039 to its abandonment in the 1960s, these remains are providing a diverse and broad array of biological information about the people from this setting, including the diseases they experienced, their health status and living conditions, nutrition, behavioral and activity patterns, and lifestyle. Teeth yield a record of oral health and diet, and skeletal joints give insights into osteoarthritis and other outcomes of the aging process.
Larsen is a professor of anthropology.
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