Ancient DNA Found In 1600-Year-Old Mummified Sheep

(Photo by: Lukiyanova Natalia Frenta/Shutterstock Images)

Emma Henderson Contributor
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Scientists recently discovered DNA genome sequences in the remains of a mummified sheep recovered in northwestern Iran, calling the finding “exceptional” in a new study released Tuesday. 

The sheep’s leg, the only body part recovered, was reportedly 1600-years-old and was naturally mummified. The leg was found in the Chehrābād salt mine, according to the report published in Biology Letters. (RELATED: Archaeologists Discover Mummy With Golden Tongue In Taposiris Magna Temple)


The mummified leg was most likely discarded by hungry mine workers during “food and preparation activities,” according to the journal article. 

The research team got their hands on the sheep specimen after their collaborator and co-author Marjan Mashkour, an archaeozoologist, brought in a small cutting of the skin, according to an article on the finding in Live Science. 

The scientists found that the leg represented pristine DNA preservation, which they dated directly to the fifth-sixth century CE, according to the journal report.  

Senior study author Kevin Daly, a research fellow, told Live Science in a statement about the find that the DNA molecules found in the sheep leg were “so well preserved and not fragmented, despite their age.” This pristine preservation allowed researchers to examine both DNA from the sheep itself and the genetic material of microbes growing on the specimen, according to Live Science. (RELATED: Ancient Wolf-Puppy Found Frozen And Almost Perfectly Intact In Yukon Permafrost After 57,000 Years, Researchers Say)

The sheep leg is not the first well preserved finding in Chehrābād. Since 1993, several bodies and body parts have been discovered in the mine, according to Heritage Daily. The bodies were so well preserved because they were stored in salt, and their condition was “as if they died yesterday” despite being thousands of years old, according to the outlet. 

The first author of the Biology Letters study, Conor Rossi, said that the high-salt, low-moisture mine can not only preserve skin and hair but also protect DNA from destruction, like with the sheep leg. In a statement to Live Science, Rossi called the site “truly remarkable.” 

The DNA preservation allowed researchers to examine genes within the species that pointed towards differences in modern sheep breeds. They hope to eventually use the ancient genomes to research how humans domesticated animals like sheep and goats, according to Live Science. 

“This sample, it was something really exceptional, just how well preserved the DNA was,” Rossi told Live Science. “I think it’s fair to say we weren’t expecting to see that level of preservation.”