Digging up the past with ancient DNA

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Historically, piecing together the puzzles of human cultural
history has largely been the preserve of archaeology. However, recent advances
in the retrieval of ancient
samples of DNA
from human remains has allowed researchers to peer into the
past in unprecedented detail.

 A new study published in
BMC Genetics
now adds PCR alongside
pickaxes in the archaeological toolbox, by delving into the cultural past of
ancient Peru. Mateusz Baca and colleagues from the University of Warsaw and Universidad Católica de Santa Maria
were able to isolate DNA from the remains of individuals buried in ceremonial
burial mounds dating from the time prior to European colonization of the
Americas
.

By using a
combination of sex-linked and autosomal genetic markers, the researcher
s were able to
piece together a jigsaw of familial relations between individuals from this isolated
Andean community living 4000m up, in the shadow of the Coropuna volcano. Until now, knowledge
about how social groups were organized in this pastoral society of llama and alpaca
herders was largely inferred from ethnographic and archaeological findings. However,
by utilizing modern techniques of DNA extraction from fragments of bones and
teeth found at the site, the team were able to confirm that this community were
organized in a patriarchal society based around the traditional family unit of
Native South Americans—the ayllu.

Although such
genetic studies are prone to similar problems to their traditional archaeological
counterparts – this site for example had been subject to extensive looting – the
isolated nature of this high-altitude community fortunately meant that samples
were extraordinarily well-preserved, a boon that would certainly be shared by both
disciplines.

This study
adds to a number of excellent recent studies published in BMC Genetics at the interface
of science and cultural history since the launch of the Human Population
Genetics section under Section Editor Guido Barbujani. These
include studies on the evolution of language among ethnic groups in Thailand and the Philippines, the
genetic structure of isolated
modern-day ethnic groups
, and the genetic impact of large scale human migrations into the
Americas
.

This new combination
of Indiana Jones-meets-CSI promises to open
a new window onto human cultural history as never before, even if a fluorescent
band on an electrophoretic
gel
will never quite look as pretty on a museum shelf.