DNA from extinct humans found in caves

Batman didn't invent living in caves (Photographer: Kcakduman on flickr).

by Michael Maccallam

It’s safe to say that wherever there is a body there will always be DNA, but new research suggests that wherever there is DNA there may not necessarily be a body. In a collaborative effort led by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, DNA from extinct humans was found in sediments in caves, despite the lack of actual skeletal remains.

The results, published in Science, offer hope for the future of DNA sampling, as the remains of ancient humans are often rarely found, so researchers are optimistic that this will encourage a new wave of study into collecting samples from sites where only artefacts remain, in the hope that it will shed light on the ancient inhabitants of our planet.

The discovery has been met with widespread enthusiasm from the scientific community, with Antonio Rosas, a scientist at Spain’s Natural Science Museum, stating that “This work represents an enormous scientific breakthrough” and that “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.” Svante Pääbo, director of the Evolutionary Genetics department at the Max Planck Institute, said that “This shows that DNA analyses of sediments are a very useful archaeological procedure, which may become routine in the future.”

Seven dig sites were involved in the project, spanning all across Europe, collecting samples that span from a mere 14,000 years to an incredible 550,000 years ago. These samples were then taken back to the lab where scientists fished out genetic material from mitochondria to eventually identify DNA from 12 mammalian species including the extinct woolly mammoth, cave bear and woolly rhinoceros. As incredible as this discovery was, the project was centred primarily on discovering human DNA in particular, which proved hard considering the abundance of both extinct and present animal DNA in the extracts.

The researchers then changed their technique to specifically target human DNA and finally retrieved DNA from Neanderthals in samples from 4 sites, and also Denisovan DNA from a site in Russia. Researchers hope that new discoveries such as this will help to expand current knowledge about the genome, i.e. the genetic structure, of our ancient ancestors.

Ultimately this archaeological breakthrough has been heralded as a massive success, and will undoubtedly usher in a new age in DNA collection at sites across the world. It will lead to an exponential growth in our understanding of evolution and how our ancient ancestors lived, and this method of sampling can be used in other areas of science too. Scientists are hoping that this technique will become routine in future archaeological projects, and it will only be a matter of time before we see the effects of this new age of archaeology.