DNA research bridges a gap of a thousand years

Reconstruction of a skull fromVlaardingen

DNA research bridges a gap of a thousand years

Early 2002 archaeologists recovered in the city centre of Vlaardingen, the Netherlands, the remains of people who had been buried there between 1000 and 1050 A.D. The question arose whether any of their offspring or family members would be alive today. To answer this question last year cheek saliva samples of 88 current inhabitants of Vlaardingen were taken and studied carefully. Although there was only a slim chance, a kinship was established in one instance. It means that for the first time in the Netherlands a period of a thousand years is bridged on the basis of DNA-research. On Friday July 6 the mayor of Vlaardingen, Tjerk Bruinsma, will reveal the current inhabitant of Vlaardingen that is related to the one from the 11th century A.D. Other results from these unique DNA-studies will be disclosed by the researchers themselves.

The 1000-year-old skeletons were dug up in 2002 on a site called “Hole in the Market”. At the time it was an undeveloped corner of the Market close to the ‘Grote Kerk’. The archaeological expectations of this spot were quite high which made the Province of ‘Zuid-Holland’ decide to partly subsidise the research project. And with good reason (rightly so): within an area of nearly five by five meters archaeologists found the remains of 41 beautifully conserved bodies and several other parts of individuals. 32 were good for DNA tests. The molars of 24 of these 32 males, females and children proved to have usable DNA, important for setting up a database of old human DNA.The study of human DNA is a new and promising technique that can cause a true revolution in archaeological research.

The search for the original Vlaardingen-inhabitant
To investigate whether there are descendants of the old inhabitants buried a thousand years ago a project was started. This ‘search for the original Vlaardingen – inhabitant’ is an exceptional cooperation of the department City Archives and Archaeology of the city of Vlaardingen and the University Medical Centre of Leiden (LUMC). For this study only males were selected as kinship is most easily established in the male line. The only piece of DNA material passed on in unaltered form from parent to child is the Y-chromosome determining the male sex. Also, the male line can more easily be followed on the basis of genealogical data because the last name is normally passed on in the male line.

DNA from saliva tests and molars
Of the 24 medieval inhabitants of Vlaardingen who had good DNA there were 16 of the male sex and these formed the group that was compared with the men now living. At the start of 2006 the city of Vlaardingen called up men who could prove their male ancestors had been inhabitants of the place as early as the16th century or even before. 181 responses from all over the country came in, of which 88 candidates were selected for DNA-tests. In August 2006 the city archivist took saliva samples of these men and the samples and molars of the 1000 year old Vlaardingen inhabitants were then studied by Mrs Eveline Altena, M.A., under the guidance of Professor Dr. Peter de Knijff of the LUMC. This was a unique study for the Netherlands . Although it was most unlikely, surprisingly enough one match between two Y-chromosome DNA-profiles with a thousand years between them turned up. This is a first in Dutch history.

11th century Vlaardingen inhabitant severely hit on the head
The 1000-year-old DNA matching that of a current inhabitant is of a man approximately 45 years old. His skull is striking because it has two obvious dents next to each other. The man has obviously been beaten on the head at least twice with a hard, blunt object and survived the blows judging from the fractures that have healed nicely. The skull will be shown to the public.

Official announcement on July 6
On July 6, the mayor of Vlaardingen Tjerk Bruinsma will reveal whose Y-chromosome DNA matches that of the DNA of the man buried in Vlaardingen a thousand years ago.

The announcement of the match will take place in the ‘Grote Kerk’, in the presence of the person who provided it. Historically the ‘Grote Kerk’ is an apt location because for centuries inhabitants of Vlaardingen were buried here and closeby, in a site called ‘Hole in the Market’ where the skeletons which provided the 1000-year-old DNA were found. On this occasion the other outcomes of the research project will be made known by Prof. Dr. Peter de Knijff. The meeting in the ‘Grote Kerk’ is on invitation only.

 An old  news item, but I liked the reconstruction.


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