Archaeologists in Italy found the skeleton of a man protruding from a huge block of stone, almost 2,000 years after he died.
LONDON — The man, believed to be in his 30s, was fleeing the spectacular explosion of Mount Vesuvius that buried the Italian city of Pompeii in A.D. 79.
He had an infection of the tibia that may have made walking difficult, archaeologists say. So while he fled the first furious eruption, when the volcano fully rumbled to life after being dormant for more than 1,500 years, he did not get very far.
The man died not in contorted agony, buried in pumice and ash, but by decapitation from a large block of stone that had most likely been propelled through the air by volcanic gases, crushing his thorax and his head.
Officials at the Pompeii archaeological site announced on Tuesday that they had found the man’s remains, almost 2,000 years after he died. They released a photograph showing the skeleton protruding from beneath a large block of stone, believed to have been a door jamb that had been “violently thrown by the volcanic cloud.”
The skeleton showed evidence of a bone infection in one leg, which could have hindered the man’s ability to escape “at the first dramatic signs which preceded the eruption,” officials said.
Archaeologists have yet to find his head, though they believe it may lie “probably under the stone block,” according to a statement sent by email on Wednesday.
“This discovery has shown the leaps in the archaeological field,” he said in another statement to CNN. “The team on site are not just archaeologists, but experts in many fields: engineers, restorers,” he said, who used technical tools like drones and 3-D scanners.
“Now we have the possibility to rebuild the space as it once was,” he added.
[Scientists Hope to Learn How Pompeians Lived.]
The discovery was made after new excavations at the site began in March, in a section called Regio V.
It was the second announcement in a week from the excavation of an unexplored part of Pompeii, one of the most-visited archaeological site in the world and a Unesco World Heritage site about 16 miles southeast of Naples.
Last week, officials said they had discovered a street of houses with intact balconies that were buried when Mount Vesuvius erupted.
Some of the balconies had conical-shape terra cotta vases used to hold wine and oil. The Culture Ministry said the balconies were a “complete novelty” for this part of the buried city, which has yet to be fully excavated.
The statement said the balconies would be restored and the area would be included in a tour for the public, according to The Associated Press.
Mount Vesuvius had been rumbling for a while before it erupted, destroying Pompeii and Herculaneum nearby, burying their residents in lava and leaving their remains preserved in fossils of ash.
About 2,000 people died in Pompeii, a city of 20,000.
Vesuvius is mainland Europe’s only active volcano. Geologists say there is no doubt that it will erupt again; it is only a question of when. The volcano has erupted about three dozen times since A.D. 79, most recently in 1944, when it left 26 people dead and caused relatively minor damage.
The volcano is considered a danger to cities nearby, including the metropolis Naples. About 600,000 people live in 18 towns inside the so-called red zone, the populated area that would bear the brunt of an eruption.
At first, János Balázs had no idea why the tiny hand he found in a storage box of bones was green and mummified.
It was around 2005 and he was examining remains from an earlier archaeological dig of a cemetery conducted at Nyárlőrinc, a village in southern Hungary. The excavations had yielded more than 500 graves that mostly dated from between the 12th and 16th centuries. But none of those burials was anything like the mummified green hand Dr. Balázs and his colleague, Zoltán Bölkei, had uncovered in that forgotten box.
More than a decade later, Dr. Balázs and his colleagues think they have solved the mystery, and in doing so uncovered a unique form of mummification. They published their results last month in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences.
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The bones Dr. Balázs found were so small they could have been confused with a rat’s. Several, including some vertebrae, a hip bone and the leg bones were stained green. Both forearms were green as well, but the right one was still covered in desiccated flesh. The skin near the back was also mummified and embedded with five vertebrae pieces. Most of the ribs, a shoulder bone and two humerus bones were not discolored.
From inspecting the tiny skeleton, Dr. Balázs determined the deceased was either a stillbirth or premature baby that died shortly after birth. The researchers concluded the child was 11 to 13 inches and weighed only one or two pounds.
Archaeologically speaking, green bones are not uncommon at grave sites. Bronze or copper jewelry can often discolor skeletons as they degrade, and Dr. Balázs thought the child’s body came in contact with some sort of metal. But how did that mystery metal object end up near its tiny hands?
“It’s not so obvious, and it’s so unlikely that you’re questioning yourself,” Dr. Balázs, who is now a biological anthropologist at the University of Szeged, said through his colleague and translator Zsolt Bereczki, who is also a biological anthropologist and author on the paper.
They performed a chemical analysis on the remains and found that the child had copper levels that were hundreds of times more than average. In fact, they said, the levels were the highest ever seen in a mummy.
Dr. Balázs soon discovered that a nearby museum also had storage boxes from the dig where the baby was found.When he examined the boxes, he found the clues he needed: a small ceramic pot and a corroded copper coin.
“We started to see the actual story unfold,” said Dr. Bereczki.
The team concluded that before the child was placed in the pot and buried, someone put the copper coin into its hand. Many cultures in antiquity have buried their dead with coins as a way to pay a mythical ferryman to take their souls into the afterlife.
In this case, the copper’s antimicrobial properties protected the child’s hand from decay. Along with the conditions inside the vessel, it helped mummify the baby’s grasp. The team thinks this child’s burial may be one of the first reported cases in the scientific literature of copper-driven mummification.
The child, the team said, was most likely in a crouched position. That allowed the copper corrosion to stain other parts of the skeleton. The team also found evidence of two more burials of premature babies. One had green bones, and the team found its coin and pot, but the other did not.
Though the copper coin solved one mystery, it presented another.
Earlier reporting on mummification and archaeology
The specific copper coin, or “Kreuzer” or “krajcár,” that was found with the baby was in circulation between 1858 and 1862. That meant the burial did not occur during Medieval times. Traditionally, Christians from this later time period have not been known to bury loved ones holding coins.
Dr. Balázs and Dr. Bereczki speculate that because this child died either before or immediately after it was born, it was most likely not baptized. They think that whoever buried the child in the pot with a coin did so in hopes of finding some way to send the child into the afterlife.
And in a way, it worked.
“They kind of succeeded at saving not necessarily the soul, but some kind of legacy of this little kid,” said Dr. Bereczki, “because here we are still talking about the baby and the circumstances of its burial 150 years later.”
Nicholas St. Fleur is a science reporter who writes about archaeology, paleontology, space and other topics. He joined The Times in 2015. Before that, he was an assistant editor at The Atlantic.@scifleur•Facebook
Eyebrows have become an obsession of late, tattooed or microbladed, shaped and drawn in bold dark lines, making a statement far beyond braiding or waxing.
Lifting one and not the other often signals disbelief, amusement, curiosity. Raising both can suggest surprise or dismay. But it wasn’t always that way.
Early humans had thick, bony brow ridges that were far less nimble than ours, incapable of expressing much of anything beyond, “Don’t mess with me, Thag.”
Scientists have long thought those brows served some structural purpose, like support for chewing prehistoric food. That they could also be used to signal aggression or intimidate competitors was largely dismissed as an evolutionary perk, as were the more flamboyant brows of modern humans.
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But when Ricardo Miguel Godinho, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of York, made digital recreations of a skull believed to be 300,000 to 125,000 years old, he found no evidence that its brow ridges provided any of the practical benefits suggested by earlier studies. “He tested out the different possible explanations, and, effectively, there’s no reason for it,” said Penny Spikins, an anthropologist who conducted the study with Dr. Godinho.
Some agricultural experts are skeptical. “This paper does not settle the matter,” said Logan J. Kistler, the curator of archaeogenomics and archaeobotany at the Smithsonian Institution.
Alternative explanations remain on the table, because the new study didn’t provide enough evidence for exactly where sweet potatoes were first domesticated and when they arrived in the Pacific. “We still don’t have a smoking gun,” Dr. Kistler said.
The sweet potato, Ipomoea batatas, is one of the most valuable crops in the world, providing more nutrients per farmed acre than any other staple. It has sustained human communities for centuries. (In North America, it often is referred to as a yam; in fact, yams are a different species originating in Africa and Asia.)
Scientists have offered a number of theories to explain the wide distribution of I. batatas. Some scholars proposed that all sweet potatoes originated in the Americas, and that after Columbus’s voyage, they were spread by Europeans to colonies such as the Philippines. Pacific Islanders acquired the crops from there.
As it turned out, though, Pacific Islanders had been growing the crop for generations by the time Europeans showed up. On one Polynesian island, archaeologists have found sweet potato remains dating back over 700 years.
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A radically different hypothesis emerged: Pacific Islanders, masters of open-ocean navigation, picked up sweet potatoes by voyaging to the Americas, long before Columbus’s arrival there. The evidence included a suggestive coincidence: In Peru, some indigenous people call the sweet potato cumara. In New Zealand, it’s kumara.
A potential link between South America and the Pacific was the inspiration for Thor Heyerdahl’s famous 1947 voyage aboard the Kon-Tiki. He built a raft, which he then successfully sailed from Peru to the Easter Islands.
Genetic evidence only complicated the picture. Examining the plant’s DNA, some researchers concluded that sweet potatoes arose only once from a wild ancestor, while other studies indicated that it happened at two different points in history.
According to the latter studies, South Americans domesticated sweet potatoes, which were then acquired by Polynesians. Central Americans domesticated a second variety that later was picked up by Europeans.
Hoping to shed light on the mystery, a team of researchers recently undertook a new study — the biggest survey of sweet potato DNA yet. And they came to a very different conclusion.
“We find very clear evidence that sweet potatoes could arrive in the Pacific by natural means,” said Pablo Muñoz-Rodríguez, a botanist at the University of Oxford. He believes the wild plants traveled thousands of miles across the Pacific without any help from humans.
Mr. Muñoz-Rodríguez and his colleagues visited museums and herbariums around the world to take samples of sweet potato varieties and wild relatives. The researchers used powerful DNA-sequencing technology to gather more genetic material from the plants than possible in earlier studies.
Their research pointed to only one wild plant as the ancestor of all sweet potatoes. The closest wild relative is a weedy flower called Ipomoea trifida that grows around the Caribbean. Its pale purple flowers look a lot like those of the sweet potato.
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Instead of a massive, tasty tuber, I. trifida grows only a pencil-thick root. “It’s nothing we could eat,” Mr. Muñoz-Rodríguez said.
The ancestors of sweet potatoes split from I. trifida at least 800,000 years ago, the scientists calculated. To investigate how they arrived in the Pacific, the team headed to the Natural History Museum in London.
The leaves of sweet potatoes that Captain Cook’s crew collected in Polynesia are stored in the museum’s cabinets. The researchers cut bits of the leaves and extracted DNA from them.
The Polynesian sweet potatoes turned out to be genetically unusual — “very different from anything else,” Mr. Muñoz-Rodríguez said.
The sweet potatoes found in Polynesia split off over 111,000 years ago from all other sweet potatoes the researchers studied. Yet humans arrived in New Guinea about 50,000 years ago, and only reached remote Pacific islands in the past few thousand years.
The age of Pacific sweet potatoes made it unlikely that any humans, Spanish or Pacific Islander, carried the species from the Americas, Mr. Muñoz-Rodríguez said.
Traditionally, researchers have been skeptical that a plant like a sweet potato could travel across thousands of miles of ocean. But in recent years, scientists have turned up signs that many plants have made the voyage, floating on the water or carried in bits by birds.
Even before the sweet potato made the journey, its wild relatives traveled the Pacific, the scientists found. One species, the Hawaiian moonflower, lives only in the dry forests of Hawaii — but its closest relatives all live in Mexico.
The scientists estimate that the Hawaiian moonflower separated from its relatives — and made its journey across the Pacific — over a million years ago.
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But Tim P. Denham, an archaeologist at the Australian National University who was not involved in the study, found this scenario hard to swallow.
It would suggest that the wild ancestors of sweet potatoes spread across the Pacific and were then domesticated many times over — yet wound up looking the same every time. “This would seem unlikely,” he said.
Dr. Kistler argued that it was still possible that Pacific Islanders voyaged to South America and returned with the sweet potato.
A thousand years ago, they might have encountered many sweet potato varieties on the continent. When Europeans arrived in the 1500s, they likely wiped out much of the crop’s genetic diversity.
As a result, Dr. Kistler said, the surviving sweet potatoes of the Pacific only seem distantly related to the ones in the Americas. If the scientists had done the same study in 1500, Pacific sweet potatoes would have fit right in with other South American varieties.
Dr. Kistler was optimistic that the sweet potato debate would someday be settled. The world’s herbariums contain a vast number of varieties that have yet to be genetically tested.
“There are more than we could look at in a lifetime,” Dr. Kistler said.
For his part, Mr. Muñoz-Rodríguez plans on searching for more wild sweet potato relatives in Central America, hoping to get more clues to how exactly a thin-rooted weed gave rise to an invaluable crop.
Working out the history of crops like this could do more than satisfy our curiosity about the past. Wild plants hold a lot of genetic variants lost when people domesticated crops.
Researchers may find plants they can hybridize with domesticated sweet potatoes and other crops, endowing them with genes for resistance to diseases, or for withstanding climate change.
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“Essentially, it’s preserving the gene pool that feeds the world,” Dr. Kistler said.