Ancient human DNA from Paleolithic pendants

International scientists have reported ancient DNA recovered from a 20,000-year-old deer tooth pendant in Russia’s Denisova Cave, suggesting it may have been worn by a woman with ancestors from northern Eurasia. The findings come from an innovative, non-destructive DNA extraction method that provides direct genetic evidence for identifying ancient individuals holding items. The study was published May 3 in Nature.

Stone, bone and artificial objects made from teeth bring insights into Paleolithic ancient human behavior and culture. Items made from animal bones or teeth are particularly promising because they are porous materials that allow DNA-containing bodily fluids, such as sweat, blood, or saliva, to seep in, which can be used to infer information about the maker or user. However, it has been difficult to associate DNA with specific human individuals because DNA extracted from ancient bone material can cause damage, or change the nature of the specimen, or the specimen is at risk of erosion when immersed in extraction buffer.

Elena Essel, Matthias Meyer, Marie Soressi of the Max Planck Society’s Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Marie Soressi of Leiden University, and colleagues developed a nondestructive DNA extraction method by soaking items in sodium phosphate buffer, gradually increasing the temperature. DNA hidden in artifacts of ancient bones and teeth is released into solution for further sequencing and analysis. The authors applied this method to a deer tooth pendant found in a Denisova cave (southern Siberia, Russia), successfully recovering the DNA of an elk (a species of the genus Deer) and an ancient human.

DNA analysis allowed them to analyze the age of the pendant, about 19,000~25,000 years ago, and using DNA for such estimates also avoided damaging samples for radiocarbon dating. Further analysis of human DNA revealed that the individual (possibly the maker or wearer of the pendant) was a female woman with close genetic kinship to a group of people from northern ancient Eurasia who lived around the same time but had previously been found only further east in Siberia.

The researchers conclude that their work demonstrates the potential of ancient artefacts as a previously untapped resource of ancient human DNA, directly linked to genetic and cultural information. They also propose that archaeologists should adopt protocols that minimize exposure during and after excavations, as surface DNA contamination can hinder such analyses. (Source: Feng Weiwei, China Science News)

Entrance to Denisova Cave Photo courtesy of Richard G. Roberts

Perforated deer tooth pendant after DNA extraction. Image courtesy of Max Planck Society’s Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

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