No bones needed: ancient DNA in soil can tell if humans were around
Ars Technica » Scientific Method 2017-04-29
Humans, modern and otherwise, have lived in Denisova Cave in Siberia for tens of thousands of years, where they left behind a treasury of archaeological artifacts. The cave is famous for giving its name to Denisovans, a species of human closely related to Neanderthals. But Neanderthals have lived there, too.
In the cave’s Main Gallery, stone tools had been left behind by people who lived thousands of years ago. Those people were probably Neanderthals, according to a paper in Science this week: The soil says so. Even though no Neanderthal bones have been found with the tools, the paper’s authors are the first to be able to detect the presence of humans based on DNA found in the soil. This allows them to paint a much more detailed picture of the past, in Denisova Cave and elsewhere.
“This is a game changer for researchers studying our hominin past,” says Christian Hoggard, an archaeologist at Aarhus University who wasn’t involved with the story. His words are echoed by myriad researchers excitedly tweeting the paper: “This is pretty damn incredible,” says Rob Scott, an evolutionary anthropologist at Rutgers. Tom Higham, an Oxford professor who specializes in dating bones, called the discovery a “new era in Paleolithic archaeology.”