Humanities & Social Sciences

NJU scholar's collaborative archaeological research published in Science

On the 382nd issue of the journal Science, a research team investigating Marek's disease virus in chickens, published their latest findings on the origin of the virus. The research team consisted of scholars from multiple countries. One subgroup of the team, the Sino-Iranian joint archaeological group, is led by Professor Zhang Liangren from the NJU School of History. This group contributed research samples and archaeological information to the research effort. As a result of this contribution, Professor Zhang is listed as the co-author of the paper published in Science. This marks the first time that scholars from the humanities at NJU have had their research results published on Science.

In 2016 and 2018, Professor Zhang Liangren led the Sino-Iranian joint archaeological group in excavations at Tepe Naderi in North Khorasan Province, northeast Iran. Through excavating two trenches, they gained insights not only into the Tepe itself and its surrounding deposits but also obtained numerous samples such as charcoal, animal bones, and pottery fragments. Additionally, peacock blue-glazed pottery and blue-and-white pottery were discovered in ash pits from the Qajar period (1794-1925 AD) on the periphery.

In recent years, Professor Zhang Liangren's team has been continuously collecting excavation data, and analyzing pottery from the Bronze Age as well as peacock blue-glazed pottery and blue-and-white pottery unearthed from the Tepe. They have publised one brief report and three papers.  They also actively collaborated with institutions such as the Palace Museum in China and the French National Museum of Natural History (Muséum national d'histoire naturelle, or CNRS).

Upon learning of the need for the aforementioned research result, Professor Zhang's team sent three chicken bone samples excavated from the Qajar period ash pits to the Marek's disease virus research team.

Since the 1950s, as chicken farming became a significant global industry, chicken diseases have increasingly drawn academic attention. Marek's disease virus, a highly contagious herpesvirus, can induce tumors in chickens, thus causing widespread mortality. Named after Hungarian veterinarian Joseph Marek who discovered it in 1907, the disease has since been known as Marek's disease. To combat it, the global poultry industry has spent over a billion dollars annually on vaccination and other measures. Aiming to trace the virus's evolutionary trajectory, the Marek's disease virus research team collected 995 chicken bone samples from 140 archaeological sites across Eurasian countries including Hungary, Spain, Russia, and Iran to test the virus' genetic sequences. The study revealed that this virus has circulated in Eurasia for at least a millennium. The mortality rates remained low until the last century. The rise could be attributed to the exponential growth in global chicken farming since the 1950s, which has accelerated virus' genetic mutations. Besides, ineffective vaccination failed to curb virus transmission. This research offers insights to enhance modern vaccines and track viral variations.

Writer: Zhang Junyu

Editor: Shao Yihang