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1,600-year-old mummified sheep leg offers clues into ancient farming practices


By Tom Yun, writer

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    CARLETON-SUR-MER, Quebec (CTV Network) — DNA analysis of a 1,600-year-old mummified sheep leg found in Iran has uncovered clues as to how the ancient people of the Middle East lived.

The sheep leg was recently discovered in the Chehrabad salt mine in Iran, the same salt mine where eight mummified “salt men” were found in 1993. The research team that conducted the DNA analysis, which was led by geneticists from Trinity College Dublin in Ireland, published their findings in the journal Biology Letters on Wednesday.

Researchers were able to extract DNA from a small segment of mummified skin from the leg and found that the sheep was genetically similar to the sheep that are currently seen in the region, which suggests that the sheep used in Iran today are direct descendants of the sheep from at least 1,600 years ago.

“Using a combination of genetic and microscopic approaches, our team managed to create a genetic picture of what sheep breeds in Iran 1,600 years ago may have looked like and how they may have been used,” said study supervisor Kevin G. Daly in a news release.

The DNA analysis showed that the ancient sheep would have looked very different from domestic sheep seen on North American farms today. For starters, this sheep lacked the genes associated with a woolly coat and would not have grown fleece.

Instead, it would’ve had a shorter “hairy” coat that would not have required shearing. Analysis into the hair found on the leg using an electron microscope corroborated these findings.

Furthermore, the sheep would’ve had a fat-tail. As their name suggests, fat-tailed sheep accumulate fat in their tails, resulting in a tail that is wider and longer than other breeds of sheep. Fat-tailed sheep are common in the Middle East, as these breeds of sheep are well-adapted to arid climates.

These findings show that the ancient people of Iran “may have managed flocks of sheep specialised for meat consumption, suggesting well developed husbandry practices,” Daly said.

A specimen​ like this would have normally had significant DNA damage but was extraordinarily well-preserved thanks to the salt, as well as the low moisture content of the mine. The researchers also found various microbes and bacteria that thrive in salty conditions, suggesting that these organisms play a part in the mummification process.

“The astounding integrity of the DNA was not like anything we had encountered from ancient bones and teeth before. This DNA preservation… is an indication of how fundamental the environment is to tissue and DNA decay dynamics,” said lead author Conor Rossi in the news release.​

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