From sediment samples collected at seven archaeological sites, the researchers “fished out” tiny DNA fragments that had once belonged to a variety of mammals, including our extinct human relatives. They retrieved DNA from Neandertals in cave sediments of four archaeological sites, also in layers where no hominin skeletal remains have been discovered. In addition, they found Denisovan DNA in sediments from Denisova Cave in Russia. These new developments now enable researchers to uncover the genetic affiliations of the former inhabitants of many archaeological sites which do not yield human remains.
“By retrieving hominin DNA from sediments, we can detect the presence of hominin groups at sites and in areas where this cannot be achieved with other methods,” says Svante Pääbo, director of the Evolutionary Genetics department at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and co-author of the study. “This shows that DNA analyses of sediments are a very useful archaeological procedure, which may become routine in the future.” Paper. (paywall) – Viviane Slon, Charlotte Hopfe, Clemens L. Weiß, Fabrizio Mafessoni, Marco de la Rasilla, Carles Lalueza-Fox, Antonio Rosas, Marie Soressi, Monika V. Knul, Rebecca Miller, John R. Stewart, Anatoly P. Derevianko, Zenobia Jacobs, Bo Li, Richard G. Roberts, Michael V. Shunkov, Henry de Lumley, Christian Perrenoud, Ivan Guši?, ?eljko Ku?an, Pavao Rudan, Ayinuer Aximu-Petri, Elena Essel, Sarah Nagel, Birgit Nickel, Anna Schmidt, Kay Prüfer, Janet Kelso, Hernán A. Burbano, Svante Pääbo, Matthias Meyer. Neandertal and Denisovan DNA from Pleistocene sediments. Science, 27 April, 2017 DOI: 10.1126/science.aam9695More.
Every welcome advance like this diminishes the market for mere speculation, but then it also increases the opportunities for overinterpretation of still very slight evidence. But keep digging.
See also: Raven bone carving: Those Neanderthals evolved the fastest of any human group in history
Neanderthal Man: The long-lost relative turns up again, this time with documents
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