Adventures in History · Scientists discover primitive DNA in mummified sheep’s paw

Discovered in a salt mine in Iran, the leg is around 1,600 years old and has very well preserved genetic material.

Last Tuesday, 13th, a study published in the journal Biology Letters revealed an incredible discovery. According to Live Science, it’s the leg of a sheep that ended up being naturally mummified in a salt mine in northwestern Iran.

Probably discarded by former miners, the limb has been hidden in the mine near the village of Chehrabad for over a thousand years. Thus, the salinity of the environment prevented the leg from decomposing, as it would have been outside the cave.

Once identified by archaeologists, the artifact was delivered to Marjan Mashkour, an archaeozoologist at the National Museum of Natural History of France and the University of Tehran, Iran — who is still co-author of the study on the paw of the sheep.

With the mummified leg in hand, the scholar insisted on sending a sample of the unusual tissue to scientists at the Smurfit Genetics Institute at Trinity College Dublin. That’s how a fragment of the finding reached the researcher Kevin Daly.

Although small, the sample donated by Marjan ensured a good amount of DNA for the Kevin could analyze. From carbon dating, then, it was defined that the ewe leg is about 1,600 years old, dating back to the 5th or 6th centuries.

According to Daly, senior author of the study, the sheep’s DNA was so well preserved that it even allowed the analysis of the genetic material of microbes that ended up growing in the paw over the centuries. In this way, other species could be analyzed.

In this sense, only about 25% to 30% of the skin fragment donated by Mashkour researchers were identified as being from a sheep. The rest of the DNA in the sample was recognized as bacterial or arcuate genetic material.

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With the information on the sheep, however, researchers were able to identify some more specific information about the individual to which the leg belonged. They then discovered that she carried the “woolly” gene and the “hairy” ancestral gene with her.

Thus, the researchers of the team of Kevin identified that the 1,600-year-old sheep had a very furry kind of leather. Contrary to expectations, however, she did not serve as a woolen sheep, but probably as a herd animal raised as a source of meat or milk—serving to feed former miners.

Despite the discoveries, Kevin Daly still have a worry. “One thing we were limited by was that it was a single individual,” he explained. This means that, even with the sheep’s DNA, his team could not decipher more information about, for example, the domestication of sheep 1,600 years ago.

Now, then, scientists are looking for more data on how such animals lived in the 5th and 6th centuries. And the salt mine in Iran could be a great source of information, since, since 1993, eight human mummies aged between 1.3 1,500 years were taken from the site, several of which had their skin and hair intact.