IMPROVEMENTS IN TECHNIQUES FOR WORKING WITH ANCIENT DNA
MEAN THIS FIELD IS POISED TO ENTER THE MAINSTREAM
Human evolution: The Neanderthal in the family
Thirty years after the study of ancient DNA began,
it promises to upend our view of the past.
Ewen Callaway, Nature News & Comment, 26 March 2014
Nature 507, 414–416 (27 March 2014)
This is an excerpt from a longer story. Click here to read it in full …
Concerns over the authenticity of ancient-DNA research has faded in the 30 years since the initial research was published, thanks to laboratory rigor that borders on paranoia and sequencing techniques that help researchers to identify and exclude contaminating modern DNA. These advances have fostered an ancient-genomics boom.
In the past year, researchers have unveiled the two oldest genomes on record: those of a horse that had been buried in Canadian permafrost for around 700,000 years, and of a roughly 400,000-year-old human relative from a Spanish cavern.
A Neanderthal sequence every bit as complete and accurate as a contemporary human genome has been released, as has the genome of a Siberian child connecting Native Americans to Europeans.
Enabling this rush are technological improvements in isolating, sequencing and interpreting the time-ravaged DNA strands in ancient remains such as bones, teeth and hair. Pioneers are obtaining DNA from ever older and more degraded remains, and gleaning insight about long-dead humans and other creatures.
And now ancient DNA is set to move from the clean-rooms of specialists to the labs of archaeologists, population geneticists and others.
IMAGES:  Photo Adapted from: Tetra Images/Alamy |||  Photos (L–R): Javier Trueba/MSF/SPL; Markus Schieder/Alamy; Ref. 3; D. Reich et al. Nature 468, 1053–1060 (2010)
Bernard Wood explains why the announcement of ‘handy man’ in April 1964 threw the field of hominin evolution into a turmoil that continues to this day.
- by Bernard Wood
“Half a century ago, the British–Kenyan palaeoanthropologist Louis Leakey and his colleagues made a controversial proposal: a collection of fossils from the Great Rift Valley in Tanzania belonged to a new species within our own genus1. The announcement of Homo habiliswas a turning point in palaeoanthropology. It shifted the search for the first humans from Asia to Africa and began a controversy that endures to this day. Even with all the fossil evidence and analytical techniques from the past 50 years, a convincing hypothesis for the origin of Homo remains elusive.
In 1960, the twig of the tree of life that contains hominins — modern humans, their ancestors, and other forms more closely related to humans than to chimpanzees and bonobos — looked remarkably straightforward. At its base was Australopithecus, the apeman that palaeoanthropologists had been recovering in southern Africa since the 1920s. This, the thinking went, was replaced by the taller, larger-brained Homo erectus from Asia, which spread to Europe and evolved into Neanderthals, which evolved into Homo sapiens. But what lay between the australopiths and H. erectus, the first known human?
Betting on Africa
Until the 1960s, H. erectus had been found only in Asia. But when primitive stone-chopping tools were uncovered at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, Leakey became convinced that this is where he would find the earliest stone-tool makers, who he assumed would belong to our genus. Maybe, like the australopiths, our human ancestors also originated in Africa.
In 1931, Leakey began intensive prospecting and excavation at Olduvai Gorge, 33 years before he announced the new human species. Now tourists travel to Olduvai on paved roads in air-conditioned buses; in the 1930s in the rainy season, the journey from Nairobi could take weeks. The ravines at Olduvai offered unparalleled access to ancient strata, but fieldwork was no picnic in the park. Water was often scarce. Leakey and his team had to learn to share Olduvai with all of the wild animals that lived there, lions included” (read more).
***John Hawks already commented.
Brenda, 24, Toronto
I see you and I’m judging you.
My sense of humour is…normally nonexistent and at best very very dark. So the fact that I’m enjoying this prank while some of you aren’t participating means I’m taking your refusal as a personal (albeit irrational) attack.
I need a distraction.