Creepy crawlers

What’s growing on the walls of this ancient tomb? Researchers uncover a thriving ecosystem

Something’s alive down here.

Youzhi Feng

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Most materials — except for plastic, glass, and a few others — will deteriorate over time when exposed to the elements.

That makes preserving ancient relics a persistent challenge for archaeologists.

Microscopic organisms thrive on the remains of past civilizations, slowly reducing them to dust.

Anonymous artists of the Eastern Han period, late 2nd to early 3rd century AD via Wikimedia Commons

Liu et. al., PNAS

But little is known about the lives of the creatures that colonize precious artifacts, especially on sites that lie underground.

Bomin Su

One research team wanted to explore the “microbiome” of an ancient, underground tomb to better understand the web of miniature residents residing there today.

Youzhi Feng

They collected and analyzed samples from the Dahuting Han Dynasty Tomb in China, which dates back to the 1st century A.D.

In 1990, the tomb was closed to public viewing. So the researchers saw it as the perfect place to study what grows on the walls when people aren’t around.

This week, they described their findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Ancient Chinese artists of the late Eastern Han period / Wikimedia Commons (Video by Inverse)

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One type of bacteria appears to be primarily present in the tomb: Pseudocardinae, a type of Actinobacteria.

It was able to out-compete other types of bacteria for survival.

White colonies of Pseudocardinae growing all over the walls can be seen with the naked eye.

Youzhi Feng

Liu et. al., PNAS

And an important, minuscule arthropod also lives on the walls, helping the bacteria reach new nooks and crannies.

Called springtails, these tiny creatures pick up bacteria on their skin and spread it around. They also consume it.

Liu et. al., PNAS

Youzhi Feng

Since the walls of the tomb are covered with vibrant murals, researchers hope a better understanding of the creatures that live on them can help with future conservation efforts.

Youzhi Feng

“Our work highlights the importance of understanding the ecology of the microbiomes thriving on historical-cultural relics and remains in subterranean tombs and/or caves, to help preserve cultural heritage and ensure their long-term conservation for future generations.”

-Liu et. al., study authors.