The Italian Almanac

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archeologists at work

Evidence of Far East

Archaeologists have for the first time found evidence that people from the Far East were in Italy during Ancient Roman times. A Canadian team has dug up a 2,000-year-old male skeleton at an imperial Roman estate in Puglia whose DNA matches those of present-day east Asians. The discovery, if proven, would push back by several hundred years the date of the first direct contact between the West and the East, to more than 1,000 years before Marco Polo's historic trip to China.

"Our data reveals that some of the inhabitants of Vagnari (near Bari) came from far outside the confines of the Roman Empire," said team leader Tracy Prowse, professor of anthropology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. "This discovery poses many questions about globalisation and human mobility in Roman times," she added in the Journal of Roman Archaeology. "The tests are only preliminary but the results are intriguing".

The analysis of the man's mitochondrial DNA was unable to establish whether he himself came to ancient Apulia or was descended from Asians already living there, Prowse said. "The man probably lived between the first and second century AD but we can't say if he arrived on his own or was the son of people who preceded him". Prowse speculated the man was "probably a menial worker or a slave, because in his tomb we only found the food supposed to help him get to the afterlife and, above all, because another tomb was on top of his".

The Vagnari estate and necropolis, about 12km west of Gravina di Puglia, was discovered in 2002 and has so far yielded the remains of 70 people. In Roman times the area was known for iron-working and producing terracotta tiles, the remains of many of which were found over the tombs. The Ancient Romans are known to have traded with spice merchants from as far away as China, via intermediaries, but it was not thought that East Asians immigrated to Italy