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Collaboration on Analyzing Ancient Horses' DNA

From next month, British and Chinese scientists will conduct a joint DNA project on a dozen horse skeletons unearthed from ancient tombs in Shaanxi, an inland province of northwest China. 

The project received approval from the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, after Xinhua News Agency reported on January 1 that sorting and classification of the excavations had finished.

Excavation work started last June at the burial site of a prominent duke who lived more than 2,500 years ago. 

A joint Chinese and British team of scientists from the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology, Peking University and the University of Cambridge will undertake the work, said Li Gang, an official from Shaanxi Provincial Administration of Cultural Heritage.

Archaeologists have used a database to process and date material collected from the skeletons, including the size and weight of the skulls, spinal columns and limbs.

A lab at the McDonald Institute of Cambridge University will carry out the DNA analyses, and samples from the horses' remains will be sent to Britain next month, said Sun Anna, a researcher with Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology.

"These unearthed skeletons were chosen as samples because they are particularly intact and free of pollution," Li Gang said.

Archaeology professor Li Shuicheng of Peking University will be in charge of the three-year-long project. When finished, the information produced, such as the horses' bone mineral density and presence of trace elements, may shed light on how the animals were fed and tamed.

Experts say this will be the first comprehensive study of ancient Chinese horses, though sacrificial horses and carts are often found in northern China.

Research on the origin of domesticated horses has been of special interest to Western scholars, as the origin of domesticated horses is thought to be related to the origin of Indo-European cultures.

The skeletons of these horses were excavated in Fengxiang County, 170 kilometers west of the provincial capital Xi'an, in the No.1 tomb of Duke Jinggong of the State of Qin (897-221 BC).

The State of Qin was one of the major powers during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods (770-221 BC). The duke's tomb was excavated between 1976 and 1986, during which time archaeologists found 3,500 valuable artifacts.

Its funeral chamber, 24 meters below the surface, was divided by a wooden partition into two parts. The chamber to the east was designed in imitation of the duke's office and the rear chamber to the west as his dining room.

Fengxiang County is home to the tombs of 17 other Qin dukes.

(China Daily, China.org.cn January 12, 2005)

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