Are You My Mummy? DNA Tests to Seek Modern Relatives of 800-Year-Old Mummified Boy
By: Anna Liesowska
The images show scientists as they carefully peel away the cocoon - including birch bark and copper - which led to the mummification of a boy aged six or seven who lived close near to the modern town of Salekhard. The lower part of his face, including his teeth, become suddenly visible for the first time in around eight centuries.
DNA samples of the boy are being taken and will be compared with local indigenous Siberian groups to see if he has modern-day relatives still in the region.
The child's well preserved remains were found at the Zeleny Yar necropolis, previously seen as belonging to a mystery medieval civilization with links to Persia despite its position on the edge of the Arctic.
Work is also underway to recreate the boy's face with the help of scientists in South Korea, and a discovery has been made that raw fish was integral to his diet.
Professor Petr Slominsky, head of the Laboratory of Molecular Genetics of Hereditary Diseases at the Institute of Molecular Genetics, Moscow, told The Siberian Times: 'In June we will travel to places close to Zeleny Yar to gather DNA samples from the local indigenous population, and try to find the genetic connections between them and the people who lived in here in the Middle Ages.
As he was a boy, the facial bones were not formed fully, so they were separated during the long period the remains were buried in the ground. ( Alexander Gusev )
'We are interested in the Khanty and Nenets populations, and also in an isolated group of Komi, who live near Lake Muzhi.'
Scientists are confident of obtaining sufficient DNA quality from the mummy, despite difficulties. 'We are working now on extracting the good samples of DNA from the probes we have taken,' he said.
'It is quite complicated, because the body was wrapped in birch bark and the birch resin made a powerful blow to the tissues. Besides the body unfroze and refroze again for several times. The DNA we get is not very clean, and there is not very much of it. But at the moment we are working to clear the DNA and get more samples and as soon as we succeed we will start the analysis.
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'First we will sequence the mitochondrial DNA to say to which ethnical group it related on the maternal line. The next step will be to analyse the nuclear DNA to find out his roots from paternal side.'
When they take modern-day samples with which to compare the ancient boy, they will seek locals who are known to be 'ethnically clean back to their great grandparents'. Luckily it is easier to find such people among indigenous people, than among, say, Russians, so I believe that we will gather enough samples for our research,' he said.
'The main thing for us is to provide the clean probes. Actually we are the last generation who can gather such material, because after this cross-breeding will increase significantly.'
'He was buried at a cold time of the year and this may help the natural preservation of his body, along with the copper plates and cold climate. ( Yamalo-Nenets regional Museum and Exhibition Complex )
Sergey Slepchenko, a fellow researcher of the Institute of the Problems of Northern Development, Tyumen, said: 'There is an agreement with Seoul University, and they plan to take probes and sequence DNA, check on stable isotopes, and then search for ectoparasites in the skins of animals found in the grave.
'Yet the big and long project is our attempt to restore the face of the boy. It will be quite long, because first we need to restore the skull. As he was a boy, the facial bones were not formed fully, so they were separated during the long period the remains were buried in the ground.’
'The skin on the face is almost intact, but the bones are separated. That means that we need to go a more complicated way - using computer tomography we will put together the facial bones, and bones of the skull, and then reconstruct the face. This quite a long process and the most part it will be undertaken by Koreans.'
Intriguing results have been obtained already on analysis of the contents of the boy's intestines. 'We have made a small cut and took a probe of contents - totally about one gram. The first interesting result was that there was no pollen here, that means that the boy died in late autumn or in winter.