DNA analysis offers insights concerning life on Comstock

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VIRGINIA CITY -- A syringe and six hypodermic needles, artifacts found during an archaeological dig in Virginia City, are revealing important clues about life in the 1860s.

For more than 125 years the glass syringe and needles lay hidden beneath the burned floorboards of what once was a small house just east of Virginia City's main street.

The artifacts were discovered in the summer of 2001. When subjected to mass spectrometry analysis, the glass syringe tested positive for small amounts of morphine. DNA analysis led scientists to believe at least four people, both men and women, used the syringe.

A urethral irrigator, used to treat venereal disease symptoms, was also part of the discovery. All are clues to stories that didn't make the history books, according to Nevada Historic Preservation Officer Ron James.

"The story of the Comstock is traditionally very white, very male and very aristocratic," he said. "My office is trying to expand the story to include women, minorities and the working class. To accomplish that, we must tease insights about these groups out of more complicated information. These test results give us a vivid picture of everyday life that we don't otherwise get from the written record."

Historic medical manuals discuss the frequent hypodermic injection of morphine during the 1870s and 1880s and infections such as syphilis and gonorrhea were common on the Western frontier. A doctor in this neighborhood, located between the red light district and Chinatown, would have a steady business treating venereal disease symptoms.

Injecting several patients with the same needle was common at the time and would explain multiple sets of the genetic components called alleles, but there are other possibilities.

The equipment could have been left after a social gathering of members of the underworld, when morphine was injected for its euphoric effects.

Bordered by Virginia City's Union, Sutton, F and H streets, the small neighborhood was packed with residents from the 1860s to the 1890s.

The area was a likely location for prostitutes and their companions. When the needles became dull, damaged or clogged, they could have been discarded from the glass syringe under the floor. The equipment could also have been stored there and simply forgotten, according to Nevada's Department of Cultural Affairs.

DNA provides the blueprints for life, and this is the first time it has been extracted from historic artifacts on the Comstock rather than human remains.

"Even more fascinating is the presence of rare allele variants that occur primarily in people of African descent," said Julie Schablitsky, the archaeologist who spearheaded this effort. "Historically, African Americans and Jamaicans lived in this neighborhood. When we compared the alleles from the artifacts with existing forensic allele frequency databases, it became apparent that at least one of the people linked to the syringe was probably of African descent."

Through this study, Schablitsky draws a picture of a primarily middle and lower class, ethnically mixed neighborhood. Families and widows lived in single-family homes that stood next to boarding houses for miners. Germans lived next to Italians, Swiss, Canadians and blacks.

The Con Virginia Mining and Hoisting Works skirted two sides of the neighborhood, made even more congested by mine tailings that encroached from the upper block. The noise would be considered intolerable by today's standards. Stamp mills and trains ran 24 hours a day, and the smells of coal smoke mingled with corned beef.

Tests on the artifacts were conducted at Intermountain Forensic Laboratories, Inc., in Portland, Ore., at Schablitsky's request. Dr. Raymond Grimsbo tested the items for drug residue and human DNA. Schablitsky presented her findings this month at the Society for Historical Archaeology conference in Mobile, Ala.

An archaeologist with the Urban Studies and Planning Department at Portland State University, Schablitsky is completing her doctorate dissertation on the subject. The project was supported by Portland State University in Oregon and the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office.


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