Having no skeletal remains doesn’t mean there’s no DNA evidence – at least, as far as ancient humans go.
Researchers have found that there are genetic material present in sediment samples taken from seven archeological sites, the BBC reports. Since remains of human ancestors are so rare, these new findings could assist scientists in learning more about ancient inhabitants in places where only items, not human remains, have been unearthed.
Antonio Rosas, a scientist at Spain’s Natural Science Museum in Madrid, said, “This work represents an enormous scientific breakthrough.” He added,
We can now tell which species of hominid occupied a cave and on which particular stratigraphic level, even when no bone or skeletal remains are present.
Matthias Meyer of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, lead author on the study, said, “We know that several components of sediments can bind DNA. We therefore decided to investigate whether hominin DNA may survive in sediments at archaeological sites known to have been occupied by ancient hominins.”
Meyer and Rosas partnered with scientists from seven dig sites in Belgium, Croatia, France, Russia and Spain. They gathered sediment samples from a period covering 14,000 to 550,000 years ago.
The researchers then were able to identify small particles of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) in a laboratory. Mitochondria are considered the “powerhouses” of cells. They found that sediment samples that had been stored at room temperature still had viable DNA present.
Meyer and the team were able to pinpoint the DA of 12 animal species, including extinct animals such as the woolly mammoth and cave bear.
Viviane Slon, also from the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, said, “From the preliminary results, we suspected that in most of our samples, DNA from other mammals was too abundant to detect small traces of human DNA. We then switched strategies and started targeting specifically DNA fragments of human origin.”
The researchers were able to get DNA from Neanderthals in the sediments found in four archeological sites. The also found Denisovan DNA in Russia. Svante Pääbo, director of the Evolutionary Genetics department at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, said, “This shows that DNA analyses of sediments are a very useful archaeological procedure, which may become routine in the future.”
The study was published in the journal Science.