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Scientists recover DNA from skeleton

Muawia E. Ibrahim
Filed on December 21, 2004 | Last updated on April 2, 2015 at 12.32 pm

ABU DHABI — Scientists at the Forensic Science Laboratory at the Abu Dhabi Police Headquarters have successfully recovered ancient DNA from a human skeleton excavated by archaeologists earlier this year on Abu Dhabi's western island of Marawah.

It is believed to be the oldest skeleton ever found in the country that dating back to over 7,000 years ago.

Details of this scientific breakthrough were announced yesterday at the Police Headquarters by Colonel Ahmed Hassan Al Awadi, Director of the Forensic Science Laboratory and Forensic Pathology Unit at the Abu Dhabi Police Headquarters, Peter Hellyer, Executive Director of the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey (ADIAS), Dr Mark Beech, Senior Resident Archaeologist, ADIAS, and Dr Saeed Shawgi, Head of Forensic Pathology Unit.

The skeleton was discovered during excavations carried out by ADIAS during March and April 2004 at a site known as MR11, located at the western end of the island. A series of stone structures were identified.

The skeleton was found buried on a stone platform in the southern end of one of the excavated rooms.

Radiocarbon dating, as well as associated funds, makes the skeleton the earliest evidence found of the presence of Man in the Emirates.

"The skeleton was buried resting on its left side with its head facing to the north-east. Its legs appeared to be bent upwards as if the body was curled up," said Dr Beech, who directed the excavations at the site.

"Although it was clearly the skeleton of an adult, judging from the relative size of bones, we could determine the sex of the skeleton as both the skull and pelvic bones were poorly preserved," said Dr Beech.

He said a pottery, dating back to 6,000 to 7,500 years ago, found next to the body also helped decide the age of the skeleton. The expensive pottery vase, likely imported from Iraq, is probably the oldest in Southern Arabia.

Several well-preserved teeth were however recovered from the skeleton. Colonel Awadi, Dr Shawgi and a team of experts from the unit have examined three of the teeth.

Though the ancient DNA was not well preserved, as the teeth were semi-degraded, it was possible to determine that the skeleton was a male from its DNA profile, using the Short Tandem Repeat-based identification system, said Dr Awadi.

"Exciting new information about the earliest inhabitants of Abu Dhabi are starting to emerge from this joint work with Abu Dhabi Police and we are grateful to the Minister of Interior Major General Shaikh Saif bin Zayed Al Nahyan for the support given to us by staff of his ministry," said Hellyer.

Preliminary studies suggest that the male individual was between approximately 20-40 years in age. The Abu Dhabi Police forensic scientists are continuing further research on the skeleton, while ADIAS plans a further season of archaeological excavations at the site in March-April next year, the experts said.

"We are happy with the result as we felt closer to the first man who lived in the UAE," said Dr Beech.

"This finding indicates that the history of the UAE as far as we know began in Marawah," said Hellyer.

Dr Shawgi said further DNA tests would be conducted to determine as to the nationality of the man and cause of death. These tests would be carried on the site, he said.

One of the interesting points raised was that the finds indicate that the people at that time were modern not primitive.

"The finding shows that it was a settled society who exercised fishing and had their sheep, goats and a different climate. This disproves the notion that the UAE before oil was a bunch of beduins," said Hellyer. "The focus of our work at ADIAS is to discover the past of UAE," he noted.

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