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Who owned this Stone Age jewellery? New forensic tools offer an unprecedented answer


An international team of researchers has recovered DNA from the owner of a deer tooth pendant buried for tens of thousands of years in a remote Siberian cave.

In research published in NatureElena Essel of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany and colleagues describe how they developed a new technique to extract DNA left on an artifact.

In much the same way that police solve crimes using “touch DNA” – DNA recovered from skin cells or traces of bodily fluids left behind when someone touches an object – archaeologists will now be able to find genetic traces of ancient people. recover the artifacts they left behind.

These traces will reveal the biological sex and genetic ancestry of the person who once held or carried a particular artifact, allowing archaeologists to link genetic and cultural evidence as they try to unravel the deep past.

Prehistoric Artifacts and Touch DNA

When archaeologists find artifacts such as tools and ornaments at a site, it’s not easy to figure out who used them.

Until now, we have had to rely on finding artifacts in “direct association” with buried people. That is, we could only match a person with an ornament if we found them buried while wearing it.

Even then, this funeral association is not always a guide to what has happened in life. The dead are buried with things that their community thinks they should have, that may not have been theirs when they were alive.

This new method of ancient DNA extraction provides a more direct way to determine who used specific items in everyday life.

Elena Essel works on the pierced deer tooth discovered in Denisova Cave.
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

The method can only be used for artifacts made from bone or tooth, as these materials are porous and can absorb human DNA through repeated contact with bodily fluids (sweat, blood, saliva). Fortunately, the bones and teeth of animals (And sometimes people) were commonly used in the past to make everyday tools, sacred objects, and personal adornment.

These bone artifacts were held in the hand or worn against the body for extended periods of time, allowing sweat and other fluids to seep into their surfaces over time. As a result, the artifact captures the carrier’s genetic information.

By experimenting with different techniques, Essel and her team found a way to restore that DNA record in a form intact enough to be read.

Is this yours?

Using this new method of DNA extraction, the researchers were able to extract a wealth of archaeological information from a single tooth pendant recovered from the famous archaeological site of Siberia’s Denisova Cave.

Tucked away in the foothills of the Altai Mountains, the cave has fascinated researchers for decades, as its former inhabitants not only homo sapiens but also Neanderthals and another enigmatic extinct human species known as Denisovans.

A photograph of the entrance to a cave in a tree-covered hill.
Over the millennia, Denisova Cave has been inhabited by Homo sapiens and by our extinct cousins, the Neanderthals and Denisovans.
Richard G. Roberts

First, they were able to extract the DNA from the animal the tooth belonged to, a wapiti deer (Cervus canadensis).

They were then able to extract human DNA from the pores of the tooth and deduce that this DNA came from a female individual whose ancestry most closely resembles ancient humans who were found further east in Siberia and with Native Americans. found it.

They were also able to use the DNA data to estimate the date of the pendant’s creation, somewhere between 19,000 and 25,000 years ago. This date is consistent with earlier radiocarbon dating of the layer of sediment on the cave floor in which the artifact was found.

DNA found in the soil, or “environmental DNA,” may also give us insight into who used an archaeological site like Denisova Cave.

Without the extraction and analysis of the human DNA in the tooth, archaeologists would have been able to tell what animal it came from and how old it was. However, we could never have guessed the owner of this ornament. Now we can identify a specific individual.

Using the additional DNA information attached to individual artifacts, archaeologists will be able to gain insight into past societies with a level of detail never before possible.

Read more: Dirty secrets: Sediment DNA reveals a 300,000-year timeline of ancient and modern humans living in Siberia

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