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15 December 2016
Post Mortem carried out on 2,500 year old remains

New analysis carried out on pottery sherds found at an established archaeological Iron Age hillfort site at Heuneburg, Germany, have led to an amazing discovery.
     Previously, when analysing possible human remains, results have been highly unreliable and the samples subject to high levels of contamination. This happens when studying the nucleic acids found in DNA and RNA.
     Now new researchers have been concentrating on the more reliable analysis of proteins. What was discovered in this case was evidence of proteins found on the inner surfaces of the pottery fragments, which indicated that they had once contained human blood and organs.
     It was not a common practice to store human parts in this way at that time, which lead the researchers to look a little deeper. What they found was truly amazing. They managed to isolate proteins, or peptides, that were associated with a virulent virus known as Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever virus, or CCHFV for short, which is still active today and is transmitted from person to person via ticks.
     So why were the remains stored in these pottery vessels? One explanation is that they were trying to protect their village from whatever the person died of. We do not know if there was a local epidemic or if the virus was brought in from outside the village by a travelling individual from an infected area. More interesting is the fact that many more examples of this type of body part storage may have been overlooked.
     Angelique Corthals, a forensic anthropologist at the City University of New York (USA) is quite upbeat about it. "The discovery of protein for CCHFV in the pottery sherds is very exciting". She went on to say, "What have archaeologists been missing regarding social practices and the use of pottery vessels in the past? I can't imagine all of the exciting new findings other researchers will make".

Edited from Science Magazine (9 December 2016)

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