How Neanderthal DNA from cave dirt is revealing details about early humans
May 3, 2021. Summarized by summa-bot.
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DNA extracted from cave dirt is reshaping our understanding of prehistory and could help answer some of human evolution's biggest mysteries.
Now, new techniques to capture DNA preserved in cave sediment are allowing researchers to detect the presence of Neanderthals and other extinct humans.
The first human DNA gleaned from cave dirt came from Denisova Cave in Siberia in 2017.
Last year, scientists were able to extract the DNA of Denisovans -- a little-known human population for which we only have five definitive bone fragments -- from dirt in a cave on the Tibetan plateau.
Vernot and his team are the first to glean human nuclear DNA from cave dirt.
"I think the Science paper is a remarkable technical achievement and opens up many possibilities for future work in Eurasia on caves with no Neanderthal (or Denisovan) fossils," said Chris Stringer, research leader in human origins and professor at the Natural History Museum in London.
Detecting the Neanderthal DNA fragments in the cave sediment wasn't easy, Vernot said.
While it had been a hangout for ancient humans for more than 40,000 years, with many stone tools found in the sediment, the only Neanderthal fossil found there was a toe bone that was too small to sample for DNA.
Using similar techniques, scientists announced last month that they had sequenced the genome of a prehistoric bear that lived more than 10,000 years ago using DNA fragments found in dirt in a cave in Mexico.
"It's not like DNA preserves better in cave dirt but it allows you to roll the dice more times -- there's a lot more dirt than bones.