Exceptional ancient DNA preservation and fibre remains of a Sasanian saltmine sheep mummy in Chehrābād, Iran

Rossi, C. and Ruß-Popa, G. and Mattiangeli, V. and McDaid, F. and Hare, A.J. and Davoudi, H. and Laleh, H. and Lorzadeh, Z. and Khazaeli, R. and Fathi, H. and Teasdale, M.D. and A'Ali, A. and Stöllner, T. and Mashkour, M. and Daly, K.G.

Volume: 17 Pages:
DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2021.0222
Published: 2021

Mummified remains have long attracted interest as a potential source of ancient DNA. However, mummification is a rare process that requires an anhydrous environment to rapidly dehydrate and preserve tissue before complete decomposition occurs. We present the whole-genome sequences (3.94 X) of an approximately 1600-year-old naturally mummified sheep recovered from Chehrābād, a salt mine in northwestern Iran. Comparative analyses of published ancient sequences revealed the remarkable DNA integrity of this mummy. Hallmarks of postmortem damage, fragmentation and hydrolytic deamination are substantially reduced, likely owing to the high salinity of this taphonomic environment. Metagenomic analyses reflect the profound influence of high-salt content on decomposition; its microbial profile is predominated by halophilic archaea and bacteria, possibly contributing to the remarkable preservation of the sample. Applying population genomic analyses, we find clustering of this sheep with Southwest Asian modern breeds, suggesting ancestry continuity. Genotyping of a locus influencing the woolly phenotype showed the presence of an ancestral 'hairy' allele, consistent with hair fibre imaging. This, along with derived alleles associated with the fat-tail phenotype, provides genetic evidence that Sasanian-period Iranians maintained specialized sheep flocks for different uses, with the 'hairy', 'fat-tailed'-genotyped sheep likely kept by the rural community of Chehrābād's miners. © 2021 The Authors.

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