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Archaeogenetics

Study of Ancient DNA (aDNA)
Using molecular genetics methods

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Neanderthal skull with larger-jaw and brow ridge, compared to that of Homo sapiens
Comparison of Modern Human (L) and Neanderthal (R) skulls from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Image by hairymuseummatt (original photo) and Dr Mike Baxter (derivative work). (CC BY-SA 2.0)

What is Archaeogenetics?

Archaeogenetics - a term invented by British archaeologist and paleolinguist Colin Renfrew (b.1937) - is a sub-branch of archaeology which is rapidly improving our understanding of early humans, as well the Stone Age culture they created.

Archaeogenetics means the study of ancient DNA (aDNA) using molecular genetics methods and resources. So far, this has involved:

It sheds important light on the movement and behaviour of modern humans, and their transformation from hunter-gatherers to farmers during the Neolithic culture around the world.

Methods

Three important methods that underpin successful archaeogenetic research are: DNA preservation, DNA extraction and DNA analysis.

History

Archaeogenetics has its origins in the study and analysis of blood groups in humans, which, it was realized, could provide information about the relationships between linguistic and ethnic groups.

Early pioneers in this field included Polish microbiologist Ludwik Hirszfeld (1884-1954), American immunologist William C. Boyd (1903–83), and British hematologist Arthur Mourant (1904-94).

Beginning in the 1960s, the Italian geneticist Luca Cavalli-Sforza (1922-2018) used classical genetic markers, like human blood groups, to examine the prehistoric population of Europe, culminating in the publication of The History and Geography of Human Genes (1994).

In addition, during this period, the genetic history of all important domestic plants (such as, wheat, rice, maize) and animals (including, cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, horses) has been analysed.

Theoretical models for the biogeography and chronology of their domestication and husbandry have been advanced, mainly based on mitochondrial DNA variation [note: mitochondrial DNA circular chromosome inherited by offspring from their mother], although additional markers (such as, the Y chromosome) are being studied in order to supplement the genetic narrative.

The same expression was also used by Portugese geneticist António Amorim (b.1952), in 1999. He defined it as obtaining and interpreting genetic evidence of the human past.

A similar, but more ambitious concept was put forward in 1963 - the pre-DNA era! - by the American Chemist Linus Pauling (1901-94) and the French biologist Émile Zuckerkandl (1922-2013).

Applications

Archaeogenetics is already shedding valuable light on a wide range of archaeological issues, from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age.

Here are some other questions which Archaeogenetics may help to answer.

Development of the Human Species

Global Dispersion of Homo sapiens 'moderns'

Plants

Research into the archaeological genetics of plants has been used to identify the earliest signs of plant domestication around the world. This in turn helps to uncover the first signs of a global economy.

Also, the archaeogenetics of plants can identify the unusual appearance of new crops in a region, which may be suggestive of a trading network for the exchange of food products, and the like.

To take another small but very specific case, plant DNA can also shed light on the use of ancient pottery - was it used for ceremonial or nutritional purposes?

See also: History of Stone Tools.

Animals

Archaeogenetics have also been employed to trace the domestication of pigs in early Mesopotamian culture, and pinpoint the first Neolithic farmers.

It also sheds light on how and when early humans switched from a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle, or semi-nomadic foraging, to a settled existence. (On this point, read about the disruptive conclusions of Göbekli Tepe in Anatolia.)

Archaeogenetic analysis also helps scientists to understand the domestication of dogs.

Genetic evidence proves that all dogs derive from the grey wolf. But we still don't know when, where this occurred.

NEXT: For a guide to archaeological terms, see: Archaeology Glossary.

References

(1) Amorim A (1999). Archaeogenetics. Journal of Iberian Archaeology 1: 15-25.
(2) Cann, R.L., Stoneking, M., and Wilson, A.C. (1987). Mitochondrial DNA and human evolution, Nature 325; pp 31–36.
(3) Cavalli-Sforza, L. L., Menozzi, P., and Piazza, A. (1994). The History and Geography of Human Genes. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
(4) Pauling, Linus; Zuckerkandl, Emile (1963). "Chemical Paleogenetics: Molecular Restoration Studies of Extinct Forms of Life". Acta Chemica Scandinavica. 17 (Supplement 1): 9–16.
(5) Petraglia, M. (2009). "Population Increase and Environmental Deterioration Correspond with Microlithic Innovations in South Asia ca. 35,000 Years Ago". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 106 (30): 12261–12266.
(6) Renfrew, A.C., and Boyle, K.V., (Eds), 2000. Archaeogenetics: DNA and the population prehistory of Europe. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.
(7) Krause, J.; Fu, Q.; Good, J. M.; Viola, B.; et al. (2010). "The complete mitochondrial DNA genome of an unknown hominin from southern Siberia". Nature. 464 (7290): 894–897.
(8) Campbell, Michael C.; Tishkoff, Sarah A. (2010-02-23). "The Evolution of Human Genetic and Phenotypic Variation in Africa". Current Biology. 20 (4): R166–73.
(9) Soares, Pedro; Achilli, Alessandro; Semino, Ornella; Davies, William; Macaulay, Vincent; Bandelt, Hans-Jürgen; Torroni, Antonio; Richards, Martin B. (2010-02-23). "The Archaeogenetics of Europe". Current Biology. 20 (4): R174–83.

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