A radical new breakthrough, which could solve dozens of unanswered questions on human evolution has been announced by the Max Planck Institute. Scientists can now take dust from the floor of old caves, find DNA and sequence it to see who was living there. Potentially this is as big for Paleoanthropology as LCN techniques were for Forensic Scientists a generation ago.
To realise how important this is, let’s put it into context. Our current data sets for human evolution (fossils, tools, a little DNA from a few fortuitously preserved bones) have left enormous gaps in understanding. The key questions: Who was living there? What were they doing? Who were they related to? are frustratingly unanswered. Site one has tool but no bones. Site two has bones but you can’t get DNA from them. Site three has tiny scraps of bone with good DNA, but almost nothing else. And so it goes.
Already the new technique is coming up with startling findings. Researchers at the Galeria de las Estatuas cave site in Spain:
found that, about 100,000 years ago, the population who had been living in the cave for millennia were replaced by a completely different group of Neanderthal people……It was as if a modern human population of Europeans had been replaced by East Asians,” (from Robin McKie, Guardian 17 5 21 *)
In other words you can’t say “the Neanderthals” as if they were a single homogenous group any more. Who else is that true for? As Robin wonders, can we at last find out more about Denisovans, Homo floresiensis, the Red Deer Cave, Homo naledi and a host of other recent enigmas in our family tree?
It won’t solve everything; we doubt that the techniques will work for three million year old australopithecus fossils frozen in old sandstones for example. But for the movements of recent populations,including even the Neolithic and Iron Age, it could be stunning. Once again a big thank you to the Max Planck Institute *for another contribution to human learning.
#dna #paleoanthropolgy #neanderthals #humanevolution #fossil #denisovan #neolithic #bronzeage