- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 26, 2002

VIRGINIA CITY, Nev. (AP) Archaeologists searching under floorboards in this 19th-century mining town are conducting DNA testing never before used to learn secrets about the Old West.
Some of the tests might tell a story of the frontier rarely seen in Westerns or on the old "Bonanza" television series that helped make Virginia City famous.
The DNA used for the tests was found in traces of morphine residue on a 125-year-old glass hypodermic syringe found beneath one small home. Researchers believe they found either an opium den of sorts or the office of a doctor who treated prostitutes and their customers on the edge of the town's rollicking red-light district in the 1860s and 1870s.
It is believed to be the first time DNA residue has been extracted from historical artifacts other than human remains, according to independent experts and leaders of the joint research by Portland State University in Oregon and the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office.
They say the technique will help give historians better insight into daily life on the Western frontier.
"Hollywood has made us think of Virginia City as a 'Bonanza'-type setting, and even tourism today has carried that theme," said Julie Schablitsky, an archaeologist in Portland State's Urban Studies and Planning Department. "As archaeologists and historians, we need to set the record straight."
Experts say the ability to use DNA to link gender, race and number of people to specific personal items recovered at archaeological sites is a breakthrough.
"Schablitsky's innovative application of DNA analysis opens up an entirely new way of documenting and understanding their lives from the material things that they left behind," said Donald Hardesty, an anthropology professor who specializes in the American West at the University of Nevada at Reno.
At its peak in the 1860s, Virginia City was "one of the great mining districts of the world, one of the richest places ever found in human history," said Ron James, Nevada's state historic preservation officer.
"We have a very good idea from what was written at the time of what it was like to be white, rich and male in 19th-century Virginia City. But the rest of the story has to be pieced together by whatever means," Mr. James said.
In the case of the syringe and six associated needles, the DNA testing confirmed they had been used by at least four persons, both men and women, most likely including at least one black.
Earlier research has established that Virginia City, with a population of 60,000 at its peak, was unusually diverse for its time. Large populations of ethnic groups including Africans, Jamaicans, Chinese, Irish and Germans worked area gold and silver mines.
In reviewing the DNA, Miss Schablitsky concluded that at least one of the people who used the syringe was most likely of African descent because of the presence of three different rare allele variants that occur more often in people of African descent than other races.
In addition to the needles and syringe found beneath the floorboards, researchers discovered a urethral irrigator used to treat venereal disease symptoms.
Doug Scott, an archaeologist for the National Park Service's Midwest Archaeological Center in Lincoln, Neb., has used DNA testing of human remains but not artifacts in studies of Civil War and Indian battlefields.
"They got some incredible information from those needles and syringe about a very small slice of time," said Mr. Scott, who has worked with the United Nations and international human rights groups to identify remains of victims of war crimes and atrocities.


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