Contaminated skeletons in Anthropological Survey closet | kolkata | Hindustan Times
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Contaminated skeletons in Anthropological Survey closet

kolkata Updated: Aug 14, 2013 11:59 IST
Joydeep Thakur

It is a tragedy that speaks volumes about the callousness of our times.

Thousands of human skeletal remains, some of them millions of years old, which could have shed light on our ancestors, their food habits, diseases and other valuable information related to their DNA, have become little more than useless relics, their anthropological value reduced to nil, because of contamination by human handlers at the Anthropological Survey of India (ANSI).

“The oldest item in the collection, a portion of the skull bone, dates back nearly five million years and belongs to Ramapithecus, often referred to as the common ancestor of human sand chimpanzees. We also have specimens from 30 archaeological sites spread across India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Nearly 1000 bones come from the Mohenjodaro and Harappan sites alone, ”BN Sarkar, a senior anthropologist with the ANSI, told HT.

The skeletal remains of early humans and such extinct animals as the Wooly Mammoth and a number of dinosaurs, currently languishing in both the Geological Survey of India and Archaeological Survey of India buildings, may well have suffered the same fate.

Even though ANSI has seven regional centers, the institute’s only repository is located at its Kolkata headquarters.

Thousands of bones discovered by geologists, anthropologists and archaeologists are stored here.

“But apart from their heritage and historic value, they can hardly serve any purpose now. The reason is contamination by human beings. They were never collected in a scientific manner, nor handled in a proper manner using gloves and masks. This has led to contamination of the specimens by our own cells,” a senior scientist at ANSI said.

But how does this contamination occur by just touching a bone? Scientists said that human touch contaminates almost anything. Even as you read this newspaper, cells from your fingertips are being deposited on the pages that you are reading.

If the pages are viewed under a microscope, your cells will be on them.

Similarly, if scientists want to study the skeletal remains — their DNA and molecular structure — they will also find the cells of those who had handled the bones. The results of any study would be skewed, since multiple DNA and cells would be present in the base sample.

“If the contamination hadn’t occurred, these remains would have served as a storehouse of information and allowed us to study everything from the dietary habits of our ancestors to their DNA structure,” eminent anthropologist AR Sankyan, a former scientist at ANSI, said.

“You have to be extremely cautious while excavating, collecting, handling and preserving these remains. Not only they are very fragile, but they also run the risk of contamination. In the West, scientists work in extremely sophisticated and state-of-the-art laboratories and take several precautions against contamination.
The handler’s DNA is collected and recorded first, so that it could be distinguished easily from the DNA collected from the bones,” PP Joglekar, a senior anthropologist with Pune’s Deccan College, said.

Studies of skeletal remains in other parts of the world have revealed several interesting facts.

We now know that leprosy affected our African ancestors as early as 15,000 years ago, and that the sexually transmitted disease, Syphilis, also existed nearly 2,000 years ago. We also know that the early settlers of the Mediterranean region were largely anemic.

Scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Germany have even succeeded extracting the DNA of Neanderthals, our now extinct ancestors.

There is now almost no hope that the ANSI’s research will have anything close to a similar impact.

If the pages are viewed under a microscope, your cells will be on them.

Similarly, if scientists want to study the skeletal remains — their DNA and molecular structure — they will also find the cells of those who had handled the bones. The results of any study would be skewed, since multiple DNA and cells would be present in the base sample.

“If the contamination hadn’t occurred, these remains would have served as a storehouse of information and allowed us to study everything from the dietary habits of our ancestors to their DNA structure,” eminent anthropologist AR Sankyan, a former scientist at ANSI, said.

“You have to be extremely cautious while excavating, collecting, handling and preserving these remains. Not only they are very fragile, but they also run the risk of contamination. In the West, scientists work in extremely sophisticated and state-of-the-art laboratories and take several precautions against contamination. The handler’s DNA is collected and recorded first, so that it could be distinguished easily from the DNA collected from the bones,” PP Joglekar, a senior anthropologist with Pune’s Deccan College, said.

Studies of skeletal remains in other parts of the world have revealed several interesting facts.

We now know that leprosy affected our African ancestors as early as 15,000 years ago, and that the sexually transmitted disease, Syphilis, also existed nearly 2,000 years ago.

We also know that the early settlers of the Mediterranean region were largely anemic.

Scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Germany have even succeeded extracting the DNA of Neanderthals, our now extinct ancestors.

There is now almost no hope that the ANSI’s research will have anything close to a similar impact.