As often, of late, I’m a bit behind the news cycle, and one of the stories of the past week dealt with the misidenfication of remains of a ‘mysterious breed of horse’ at Pompeii which turned out to be a donkey. Here’s the coverage from Cambridge News:
An academic at Cambridge University has been left long-faced after discovering a mystery breed of Roman horse found at Pompeii was none other than a donkey.
Experts initially believed that they had unearthed a new, now-extinct breed of horse when they analysed DNA sequences from skeletons found at a house in the ancient Roman town in 2004.
But the idea fell at the first hurdle when scrutinised by Cambridge’s Susan Gurney, who is working with Peter Forster on horse genetics.
She realised there had been a mix-up in the lab, which resulted in horse DNA being combined with that of a donkey to create an artificial hybrid.
Mrs Gurney, from the university’s Institute of Continuing Education, said: “Looking at the research with hindsight, it’s possible to recognise two separate strands of horse and donkey DNA.
“In addition, the horse DNA that appears to have been inadvertently mixed in with the donkey’s genetic information is the same type as that found in another Herculaneum horse, which might be the source of the mistake.”
The original study six years ago analysed the skeletons of equids – animals in the horse family – that belonged to a rich Roman household in Pompeii.
All five were well preserved by the volcanic ash which covered the town and the nearby settlement of Herculaneum when Vesuvius erupted in AD79.
Mrs Gurney found that the first 177 nucleotides – molecules which form the structural units of a DNA sequence – match existing patterns for donkeys. The remaining 193 nucleotides match those of an existing breed of horse.
However, the research could still prove important. The Cambridge experts believe the newly-identified donkey may well be the first proof that the “Somali” ass lineage normally found in Italy dates back to at least Roman times.
Scouring the archives of rogueclassicism, I can’t find that this received any press attention back in 2004, although I might have missed it. The abstract of the article in the Journal of Cellular Biochemistry is available online … the payfer article too, of course. If you’re interested, here’s the abstract for the article with the initial misidentification:
DNA extracted from the skeletons of five equids discovered in a Pompeii stable and of a horse found in Herculaneum was investigated. Amino acid racemization level was consistent with the presence of DNA. Post-mortem base modifications were excluded by sequencing a 146 bp fragment of the 16S rRNA mitochondrial gene. Sequencing of a 370 bp fragment of mitochondrial (mt)DNA control region allowed the construction of a phylogenetic tree that, along with sequencing of nuclear genes (epsilon globin, gamma interferon, and p53) fragments, gave us the possibility to address some questions puzzling archaeologists. What animals—donkeys, horses, or crossbreeds—were they? And, given they had been evidently assigned to one specific job, were they all akin or were they animals with different mitochondrial haplotypes? The conclusions provided by molecular analysis show that the Pompeii remains are those of horses and mules. Furthermore one of the equids (CAV5) seems to belong to a haplotype, which is either not yet documented in the GenBank or has since disappeared. As its characteristics closely recall those of donkeys, which is the out group chosen to construct the tree, that appears to have evolved within the Equidae family much earlier than horses, this assumption seems to be nearer the truth. J. Cell. Physiol. 199: 200–205, 2004© 2003 Wiley-Liss, Inc.