Normally, scientists study ancient humans by recovering DNA from fossil bones. But as you can imagine, prehistoric human fossils are rare. For example, consider Denisovans, a distant relative of Neanderthals. All known Denisovan fossils have come from a single cave in Siberia. And in many ancient sites around the world, there are no surviving human fossils at all.
Now, an international team of scientists has developed a technique to extract ancient human DNA from the dirt itself, in clay and sand scraped from the floors of caves. Mineral and organic components in sediments can bind DNA. Thanks to advances in automation, DNA sequencing and PCR (polymerase chain reaction, which multiplies small samples of DNA), the team has detected Neanderthal DNA in eight archaeological layers from four caves in Eurasia.
“Our work opens the possibility to detect the presence of hominin groups at sites and in areas where no skeletal remains are found,” the researchers write.
This announcement is the culmination of more than a decade of research. In 2003, scientists first successfully sequenced the DNA of mammoths, horses and plants extracted from Siberian permafrost.
Agilent genomics technologies have been used in this ongoing research, including our PCR solutions.
For more information go to:
- No bones? No problem: DNA left in cave soils can reveal ancient human occupants (Science)
- Neandertal and Denisovan DNA from Pleistocene sediments
- (2003) Diverse Plant and Animal Genetic Records from Holocene and Pleistocene Sediments
- Mammalian mitochondrial capture, a tool for rapid screening of DNA preservation in faunal and undiagnostic remains, and its application to Middle Pleistocene specimens from Qesem Cave (Israel)
- Agilent Genomics Solutions