Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology have extracted ancient hominin DNA from soil. The research team collaborated with archaeologists excavating cave sites located in Belgium, Croatia, France, Russia, and Spain. The team collected sediment samples from seven different sites previously known to have been occupied by human ancestors. The samples, which were deposited between 14,000 and 550,000 years ago, contained DNA from numerous animals to include a woolly rhinoceros and a cave hyena. However, samples from four of the sites also contained hominin DNA. Using a technique called “automation-assisted screening,” researchers were able to extract Denisovan DNA from one sample and Neanderthal DNA from eight others. The results are remarkable because many of the DNA yielding samples came from sites where no hominin bones or teeth have been recovered, opening up a whole new world in evolutionary and human population studies.
For all of you curators out there, the Max Planck folks say old sediment samples stored at room temperature have yielded DNA as well. The research team published its findings in the journal Science. Here’s a convenient link to the article.