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Are These the Skeletons of the First European Colonists in the U.S.?

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The city gate to St. Augustine, built in 1808, centuries after the city was first settled by Spanish colonists. Image Credit: Yakin669 via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

When Hurricane Matthew roared through St. Augustine, Florida, in October 2016, many of the town’s historic buildings were damaged. But it wasn’t until a building owner decided to tear up a flooded floor to mitigate water damage that an historic discovery was made—what may be the skeletons of the earliest European colonists in the United States.

The city of St. Augustine was founded by admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, who had sailed from Spain and spotted land in what is now Florida on August 28, 1565. Menéndez became the first governor of Florida, and St. Augustine was its capital for two centuries. Although Pensacola, Florida, is the oldest multiyear European settlement, founded by Tristán de Luna in 1559, St. Augustine, located in the northeast part of the state, wins the title for being the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the contiguous U.S.

Given the age of the city, St. Augustine’s archaeological team has worked for decades to shed light on various phases of occupation. In 1572, the town was relocated from a barrier island onto the mainland, following difficulties defending it from the Timucua Indians. Shortly after this move, the first parish churches were established: Nuestra Señora de la Soledad and, slightly earlier, Nuestra Señora de los Remedios, the parish church of St. Augustine.

The sites of both churches, which were in use between the 16th and 18th centuries, have seen archaeological excavations over the years, including the discovery of numerous burials. La Soledad produced evidence of European, African, and Native American individuals buried in Spanish and British styles, while Los Remedios has European and Native American burials in Christian style.

New graves discovered during flood mitigation in January are being excavated this week by city archaeologist Carl Halbirt due to a planned expansion of a water main through St. Augustine’s Charlotte Street. Halbirt and his team found burials both under the cobblestone street and within what is now the Fiesta Mall, a small building in downtown.

Based on the majolica pottery inclusions, the burials date to 1572–1586 and were therefore almost certainly among the earliest made in St. Augustine. The style of burial is Christian, with the skulls oriented to the east and the arms crossed over the front of the body. The discovery of these graves also means that archaeologists have further physical evidence from Los Remedios, cementing its label as the oldest known parish church in the United States.

John Worth, an archaeologist at the University of West Florida who was not involved in the study, tells mental_floss that this discovery is immensely significant. “Not only do they contribute to an understanding of the church itself, the burials may provide an opportunity to learn more about Florida’s earliest European permanent residents, including perhaps where they originally came from,” Worth says. If the people unearthed were indeed founders of St. Augustine, Worth notes, their skeletons may reveal “the struggles of life during the first two decades of the city’s earliest history.”

Analysis of the remains themselves is only just beginning, but preliminary work by University of Florida anthropologist John Krigbaum suggests the people who were just found appear to be European adults. If the state allows destructive testing, further research will be done on samples from the skeletons to potentially investigate their geographic origins, diets, and any diseases they had. The burials themselves, though, may stay put under the floor or may be reburied at the historic Catholic Tolomato Cemetery.

For a look inside the excavation, check out the segment below from First Coast News.

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Antarctic Heritage Trust
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History
Researchers Find 100-Year-Old Antarctic Fruitcake in 'Excellent Condition'
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Antarctic Heritage Trust

If you want a snack that really won’t go bad, consider the fruitcake. Conservationists working with artifacts from Cape Adare, Antarctica, just discovered a remarkably well-preserved fruitcake dating back a full century, according to Gizmodo.

The fruitcake dates back to Robert Falcon Scott’s disaster-plagued Terra Nova expedition, which began in 1910. Documentation proves that Scott brought tins of the same Huntley & Palmers fruitcake with him to Cape Adare, about 1700 miles south of New Zealand.

The 106-year-old fruitcake tin is rusted and its paper wrapper damaged—though still largely intact—but the cake itself “was in excellent condition,” as a press release from the New Zealand-based Antarctic Heritage Trust, whose researchers discovered the tin, describes. The release says it “looked and smelt (almost) edible,” which is a glowing review for a food that dates back to William Taft’s presidency.

A rusted rectangular tin holds a century-old fruitcake.
Antarctic Heritage Trust

Why fruitcake? “It’s an ideal high-energy food for Antarctic conditions, and is still a favorite item on modern trips to the Ice,” according to the AHT’s project manager for artifacts, Lizzie Meek. Four AHT conservators have been working to preserve almost 1500 artifacts from Cape Adare, where Norwegian explorer Carsten Borchgrevink erected the first buildings in Antarctica. (Scott’s expedition later used the same huts.) They're still standing, and the AHT’s next project will be preserving the structures.

The Cape Adare site is an Antarctic Specially Protected Area, and the trust is working under a permit that requires its conservators to return any artifacts to the huts after they’ve been restored, meaning Scott’s fruitcake will eventually go back to where it was found.

Surprisingly, this is not the first fruitcake that has stayed edible for more than a century. Fidelia Ford made a holiday fruitcake in 1878, and it’s still in the family. It’s not quite fresh, though. One of Ford’s descendants reviewed it thusly: “Not much of a taste, no, and not good.” Given that Scott’s fruitcake is set to return to Cape Adare eventually, it’s doubtful that anyone will get a taste. We’ll just have to use our imaginations.

[h/t Gizmodo]

All images courtesy Antarctic Heritage Trust

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Jim Forest, Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Scientists Devise Clever Way to Test Old Manuscripts’ DNA
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Jim Forest, Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When encountering an obstacle, some people stop and give up, some force their way through, and others find another way around. That's what scientists in the United Kingdom have done with a delicate manuscript from the Dark Ages. Barred from taking parchment samples, the resourceful researchers instead analyzed the eraser crumbs left behind after archivists cleaned the paper. They describe their findings in an article on the prepress server bioRxiv.

Co-author and archaeologist Matthew Collins of the University of York did not start out a manuscript man. Collins had been trying to extract DNA from animal bones unearthed at a Viking settlement to learn more about the culture's use of livestock. But the bones had decayed too far to offer much in the way of genetic material. "You can imagine the frustration," Collins said in an interview with The Atlantic.

Then he realized that animal remains can be more than just bones. There are skins, too—and those, at least, we've taken some pains to preserve. At least the ones we've written on.

"You look at [archive] shelves," Collins said, "and every one of them has a skin of an animal with a date written on it."

Collins's excitement at discovering this untapped bounty of data was soon tempered when he and his collaborator, biochemist Sarah Fiddyment, learned that sampling the manuscripts was completely off-limits.

But they weren't about to give up that easily. Fiddyment spent weeks following the conservators as they worked with the fragile animal-skin paper, learning their process and watching for possible openings. Finally, she saw it: eraser crumbs.

Conservators routinely use PVC erasers to lift stains, grime, and damage from historic documents. The friction created by gently rubbing the eraser against the paper creates an electric charge that pulls in molecules of dirt and oil. And probably other things, too, Fiddyment thought.

Fiddyment, Collins, and their colleagues began collecting eraser crumbs from manuscript conservators around the world. They analyzed each document's chemical makeup and were even able to compare proteins to identify the livestock species responsible for the skin.

The next step was to look at the DNA itself. The researchers turned to the York Gospels, a leatherbound Bible with pages dating back to the year 990. By collecting another tiny pile of eraser crumbs from cleanup of eight pages, they were able to collect enough of a sample to run thorough DNA tests.

Those pages had quite a lot to say about their creation and history. The tests revealed 1000-year-old genetic material from the cows and sheep that gave the book its parchment pages. Remarkably, the DNA was so intact that the scientists could identify the cows' ancestry (something close to our modern-day Norwegian reds and Holsteins) and sex (mostly female).

The pages also contained human DNA and even bacteria, most likely from the hands and saliva of the people who made, wrote, and used the book.

Speaking to The Atlantic, parchment expert Bruce Holsinger of the University of Virginia called the findings "an exciting breakthrough."

[h/t The Atlantic]

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