Digging up the past with ancient DNA

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 sexlinked and autosomalgenetic markers, the researchers 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.

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