|photo: C. Wiktorowicz, et.al. Journal of Archaeological Science|
Sometime between 600 and 450 B.C.E., a high-status individual in what is today Germany developed some disturbing symptoms: large bruises, bleeding from the nose and gums, and bloody diarrhea and urine. His fellow villagers, shocked—or perhaps intrigued—by his condition, stored his blood and organs in pottery vessels after he died, and interred them in a burial mound. Now, using a novel technique based on analyzing ancient proteins, archaeologists have reconstructed the contents of these vessels to conclude that the individual likely died from Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever virus (CCHFV), a severe tick-borne disease that still kills people across the world today.
"This is the first identification of CCHFV or any hemorrhagic fever virus in the archaeological record," says Conner Wiktorowicz, the study's lead researcher and a Ph.D. candidate in archaeology at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. It’s also the only known example of human blood and organs being buried in pottery vessels during this time in this region, raising the question of whether this was a more widespread practice, previously unknown to archaeologists.
The contents of ceramic vessels decay over time, leaving a film of residue containing proteins from any organic matter stored within. Archaeologists are exploring new ways to recover and analyze these proteins. In the new study, a team led by Wiktorowicz ground up a small portion of each of the pottery fragments (or sherds), used detergent and other chemicals to dislodge any proteins stuck to them, and isolated and analyzed the protein fragments using various techniques. The team then fed this information into a national protein database.
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