Ambassador or slave? East Asian skeleton discovered in Vagnari Roman Cemetery

A team of researchers announced a surprising discovery during a scholarly presentation in Toronto last Friday. The research team, based at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, has been helping to excavate an ancient Roman cemetery at the site of Vagnari in southern Italy. Led by Professor Tracy Prowse, they’ve been analyzing the skeletons found there by performing DNA and oxygen isotope tests.



The surprise is that the DNA tests show that one of the skeletons, a man, has an East Asian ancestry – on his mother’s side. This appears to be the first time that a skeleton with an East Asian ancestry has been discovered in the Roman Empire.



However, it seems like this contact between east and west did not go well.



Vagnari was an imperial estate during this time. The emperor controlled it and at least some of the workers were slaves. One of the tiles found at Vagnari is marked “Gratus” which means “slave” of the emperor. The workers produced iron implements and textiles. The landscape around them was nearly treeless, making the Italian summer weather all the worse.



The man with East Asian ancestry may well have been a slave himself. He lived sometime in the first to second century AD, in the early days of the Roman Empire. Much of his skeleton (pictured here) has not survived. The man’s surviving grave goods consist of a single pot (which archaeologists used to date the burial). To top things off someone was buried on top of him - with a superior collection of grave goods.



Much of the cemetery has yet to be excavated, but indications so far suggest that his contemporaries were mostly local individuals. Archaeologists have dug up 70 skeletons from the Vagnari cemetery and oxygen isotope tests have shown that more than 80 per cent of the people were born at or near this estate.



“How this particular individual ended up down in Vagnari is an intriguing story and that’s what makes this find very exciting,” said team member Dr. Jodi Barta, who analyzed the DNA.



DNA Testing



The researchers determined his ancestry by analyzing his mitochondrial DNA – material that is passed down from mother to offspring.



As DNA is passed down from generation to generation there are mutations. People who are related to each other will have similar changes – allowing researchers to put them into broad “haplogroups,” that tend to relate to geographical areas.



This technique has been used to map the spread of humans throughout the world.



The man found in the cemetery has DNA that belongs to what scientists called haplogroup D. “The haplogroup itself has this East Asian origin, it’s not something that’s found in past European populations - the origin of this haplogroup is East Asia,” said Dr. Barta.



This technique does have limitations. Because it only tests DNA from his mother's side, his paternal ancestry is not known. The team also cannot say where specifically in East Asia his mum’s ancestors are from. There “is absolutely no way that you can put that fine a point on it” with the evidence at hand said Barta. “Unless we can extract nuclear DNA and add that to the line of evidence that we’ve got,” said Professor Prowse.



Also the scientists cannot say how recently he, or his ancestors, left East Asia. He could have made the journey by himself, or it could be that a more distant ancestor, such as his great-grandmother, left the region long before he was born.



“We have no way to put a clock on that,” said Barta.



Trade Between China and Rome



At first glance it’s tempting to link this fellow to the silk trade that flourished between China and Rome. The trade picked up during the 1st century BC, with traders following an arduous 8,000 kilometre route across Central Asia.



However, while the silk was made in China, it’s generally believed that the people who plodded this route were intermediaries. In fact there is not much evidence that anyone from China, or the areas nearby, ever got to Italy in ancient times.



Dr. Raoul McLaughlin, of Queens University Belfast, has studied ancient Sino-Roman relations and wrote in the publication History Today that-



“The surviving Classical sources suggest that the Romans knew very little about the ancient Chinese. Most of what they knew came in the form of rumours gathered on distant trade ventures.”



Adding, “as far as we are aware, they never realized that on the edge of Asia there was a vast state equivalent in scale and sophistication to their own.”



There are references, however, to a people called the “Seres” whom some scholars believe could be Han Chinese or people from nearby areas. Plinius's association between the Seres and silk production adds weight to that theory. He wrote: 'Send out as far as to the Seres for silk stuff to apparel us'.



Strabo also wrote about the Seres, describing their incredible longevity: "The Seres who, they say, are long-lived, and prolong their lives even beyond two hundred years". According to Florus, embassadors came from this land to meet Augustus.



It seems unlikely that the man found at Vagnari was any kind of embassador – if he was why would he be working on an imperial estate? Did he make a really bad impression on Augustus?



I asked both Prowse and Barta if they knew of any other skeletons with East Asian ancestry near Rome. They both said that they don’t.



“Most of the research that has been done... is really related to early population development, such as humans out of Africa, the migrations of humans from Asia to North and South America,” said Professor Prowse.



“To my knowledge I don’t know of any specific example of this kind of haplogroup.”



Prowse is hopeful that more DNA research will come out as people realize its value.



“It may actually prompt other people to start looking through, and not just rely on the archaeological remains but also trying to look at the skeletal remains to try and answer some of these questions.”

10 Best Ancient World Exhibitions Coming up in 2010

How did leprosy spread across the ancient world?

Roman Graffiti: From Pompeii with Love

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Games Developer - HTML5

    £28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With extensive experience and a...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

    £26000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Product Manager

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Due to on-going expansion, this leading provid...

    Recruitment Genius: Shift Leaders - Front of House Staff - Full Time and Part Time

    £6 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a family ...

    Day In a Page

    A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

    A Very British Coup, part two

    New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms
    Chinese web dissenters using coded language to dodge censorship filters and vent frustration at government

    Are you a 50-center?

    Decoding the Chinese web dissenters
    The Beatles film Help, released 50 years ago, signalled the birth of the 'metrosexual' man

    Help signalled birth of 'metrosexual' man

    The Beatles' moptop haircuts and dandified fashion introduced a new style for the modern Englishman, says Martin King
    Hollywood's new diet: Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?

    Hollywood's new diet trends

    Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?
    6 best recipe files

    6 best recipe files

    Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Atwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

    Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

    The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade