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Neanderthals coming out of the dirt

Extinct hominin DNA extracted from >40,000 years old sediment

Marie Soressi sampling sediment for genetic analyses at the archaeological site of Les Cottés, France (Image by: Matthew Wilson)
The cave-site of Les Cottés in France where occupations by late Neandertals and early anatomically modern humans are exceptionally preserved and where DNA was extracted from the sediment (Image by: S. Schatz/Les Cottés project)

New DNA techniques

Up till now ancient DNA techniques where limited to the frozen soils of Siberia. Until recently there was little hope of retrieving ancient DNA from the soil of sites used by Neandertals and other ancient hominins in more temperate climates.

In a study just published in Science, paleo-geneticists and archaeologists shows that the DNA of Neandertals and Denisovians can be extracted from >40,000 years old sediments in France. M. Meyer, V. Slon and collaborators put together a new extraction technique that allows for the retrieval of extremely small amounts of ancient DNA.

Marie Soressi: "Applied at a broader scale, the combination of these studies with the analysis of the tools and objects used by hominins will allow for better understanding of the demise of Neandertals in Europe and the spread of anatomically modern humans all over the planet".

Hidden

The challenge in such a study was to “fish” for the mitochondrial DNA of ancient hominins which is hidden among many other DNA fragments. Mostly bacterial DNA but also from other extinct mammals like woolly mammoth, woolly rhino’s or cave hyena.

Marie Soressi, assistant professor at Leiden University, contributed to the study by providing one of the archaeological contexts where this revolutionary technique was first applied. Marie Soressi is excavating at a site near Les Cottés in France which was occupied by both late Neanderthals and early anatomically modern humans and is exceptionally well preserved.

Present without remains

While there are numerous prehistoric sites in Europe and Asia that contain tools and other human-made artefacts, skeletal remains of ancient humans are scarce. With the application of this technique, published by Slon et al., the authors where able to show that Neanderthals were present in two sites even where no human remains were found.