By Ewen Callaway
Bones and teeth aren’t the only ways to learn about extinct human relatives. For the first time, researchers have recovered ancient-human DNA without having obvious remains — just dirt from the caves the hominins lived in. The technique opens up a new way to probe prehistory.
From sediments in European and Asian caves, a team led by geneticist Viviane Slon and molecular biologist Matthias Meyer, both at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, sequenced genomes of cell structures called mitochondria from Neanderthals and another hominin group, the Denisovans. Their work is published in Science1.
“It’s exciting to see that you can end up with a whole pile of ancient-human DNA from just dirt,” says Michael Bunce, an evolutionary biologist at Curtin University in Perth, Australia.
Slon and Meyer are not the first to decode ancient dirt. Palaeogeneticist Eske Willerslev of the Natural History Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen pioneered the approach in 2003, to find out about the plants and animals that populated prehistoric environments2, 3. Using the technique, he and his team revealed that Greenland was once richly forested4. But Slon and Meyer are the first to use the technique on hominin DNA.
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