The mystery of the 900 year old “flesh-joined twins”: an example of the scientific method at work

Jennifer Raff —  May 21, 2013 — 1 Comment

In 1941, an archaeologist named Glenn Black excavated a site called Angel Mounds just east of Evansville Indiana. Angel Mounds (AD1050-1400) belonged to the Mississippian culture, which was found throughout the Midwest and Southeast in the centuries just prior to European contact.

When excavating a region of the site dense in children’s graves, Black uncovered a grave which contained two babies buried together in a very unusual manner: heads facing away from each other, legs intertwined, hands joined:

From Marshall et al. 2011, figure 2, showing the burial position of the two children.  Note that this is not a photograph but rather a sketch image. While it’s important to show the disposition of the skeletal elements in order to illustrate the scientific background, out of respect for descendent communities I (and others) feel it is inappropriate to post actual photographs of human remains without permission.

From Marshall et al. 2011, figure 2, showing the burial position of the two children.
Note that this is not a photograph but rather a sketch image. While it’s important to show the disposition of the skeletal elements in order to illustrate the scientific background, out of respect for descendent communities I (and others) feel it is inappropriate to post actual photographs of human remains without permission.

He interpreted this burial as “flesh-joined” twins, as they didn’t have any fused skeletal elements. Conjoined twinning* occurs when a single fertilized egg splits only partially into two fetuses (as opposed to complete splitting in monozygotic twins). The rate of conjoined twinning in the United States is approximately 1/ 33,000-165,000 births, but the frequency of conjoined twinning in ancient societies is unknown.

The children’s remains, along with those of other people excavated from Angel, were taken to be cared for by the Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Seventy years later, my colleague Dr. Charla Marshall became interested in the children, and in Black’s hypothesis that they were conjoined twins. With permission of the curators at the Glenn Black laboratory, she undertook a comprehensive analysis of the children.**

Dr. Charla Marshall, doing ancient DNA work. Note the protective clothing designed to minimize risk of contamination from modern DNA.

Dr. Charla Marshall, doing ancient DNA work. Note the protective clothing designed to minimize risk of contamination from modern DNA.

She and her colleagues found that the two children (designated W11A60 and W11A61) were approximately 3 months old, and had evidence for poor health, but otherwise saw no skeletal evidence that could either support or reject the hypothesis that they were conjoined twins.

Fortunately, Dr. Marshall happened to be an expert in the one method that would definitively tell whether the children were twins or not: ancient DNA analysis. Because mitochondrial DNA is maternally inherited, siblings (and twins) MUST have the same mitochondrial sequence.

Both children, despite having been dead for nearly a thousand years, had ancient DNA still preserved. By extracting the DNA and sequencing it, Dr. Marshall was able to determine their mitochondrial lineages (haplogroups). [I give a little bit of background into how ancient DNA research is done here and here].

Surprisingly, they were different! In the table below, you can see the mutated DNA base positions for each child listed in the third column (under ‘haplotype’). The particular combination of mutations for each child means that they belonged to two different haplogroups: A and C.

Marshall et al. 2011, Table 3.

Marshall et al. 2011, Table 3.

Therefore, the “conjoined twins” were neither twins nor siblings, nor maternal relatives of any kind. Black’s 70 year old hypothesis was wrong.

Why were they buried in such a peculiar way? Dr. Marshall and her colleagues (Cook et al., 2012)*** presented a paper last year at the Midwest Archaeological Conference in which they discussed possible interpretations for this burial practice.

Perhaps, they suggest, the children were non-maternal relatives (maybe half-siblings who shared a father?), who died at the same time and were buried together to reflect this close relationship. Or perhaps the arrangement of the babies’ bodies was entirely symbolic.

Twins play a special role in Eastern Native American iconography, and different Native American societies treat twins in different ways; in some cases they are regarded as having special spiritual power, in other ancient societies they were thought to be negative. Perhaps the co-burial of two maternally un-related children of the same age was meant to be symbolic of twinship, rather than having a literal meaning.

In general, co-burial of individuals was a pretty common practice among the ancient Mississippians, and typically archaeologists have interpreted the co-buried individuals as being related to each other. However, those of us doing ancient DNA research in the Midwest have been testing this hypothesis on co-burials and finding that they’re almost never maternally related. Because no ancient Y-chromosome DNA has yet been recovered from Midwestern co-burials, we don’t know if they might be paternally related.

The motivation for Mississippians to bury people together, and these two children at Angel Mounds in particular, continues to be a mystery. However, the approach of Dr. Marshall and colleagues is a very good example of how persistent research can disprove a long-standing, wrong hypothesis. It may be that future generations of students will be able to solve this mystery with additional genetic evidence.
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*The more popular term, “Siamese twins”, was introduced by P.T. Barnum to refer to Eng and Chang Bunker (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chang_and_Eng_Bunker), who were members of his circus. “Siamese twins” has therefore taken on negative connotations associated with this history.

**Marshall C, Tench PA, Cook, DC, Kaestle FA. 2011. Conjoined twins at Angel Mounds? An ancient DNA perspective. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 146: 138-142.

***Della Collins Cook (Indiana U), Charla Marshall (Southern
Illinois U Carbondale), Cheryl Ann Munson (Indiana U), and Frederika A Kaestle (Indiana U). 2012. If Angel Twins Aren’t Twins, What DO They Represent? Paper presented at Midwestern Archaeological Conference, East Lansing Michigan, Oct 17-21, 2012
( http://www.midwestarchaeology.org/storage/MAC%20Program-final.pdf)

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Jennifer Raff

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Scientist, fighter, reader. In pursuit of the extraordinary.

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  1. Women of science: Hypatia of Alexandria | Violent metaphors - June 4, 2013

    […] my female colleagues (For example, I encourage you all to read my post on the interesting work of Dr. Charla Marshall.). But I also want to discuss the contributions of women throughout the history of […]

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