Ancient pendant with 20,000-year-old human DNA found in Denisova Cave

Ancient human DNA has been extracted from a pendant made from a deer tooth dating roughly 19,000 to 25,000 years ago. The DNA indicates it may have been worn by a female of North Eurasian ancestry.

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Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany used innovative non-destructive methods of DNA extraction to get a genetic picture of the individual who handled the object around 20,000 years ago.

They submerged the pendant in a sodium phosphate solution and slowly increased the temperature. This process releases DNA trapped in the artefact, which can then be examined.

The procedure released the DNA of a species of elk called a wapiti, and an ancient human.

The pendant was found in the Denisova Cave in southern Siberia in Russia.

Cave entrance
The entrance to Denisova Cave. Credit: Richard G. Roberts.

The cave is the site where the remains of a group of ancient human cousins called Denisovans were found in 2010. Like Neanderthals, this group of humans are related to modern humans, but diverged from our lineage several hundred thousand years ago before disappearing around 50,000 thousand years ago.

DNA analysis was also used to age the pendant, avoiding the destructive process of radiocarbon dating.

It is presumed the human DNA belonged to the wearer or maker of the pendant. The DNA points to a female individual who was closely related to a group of ancient North Eurasian humans who had only previously been found further east in Siberia.

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Stone and bone artefacts such as this pendant offer insight into palaeolithic human behaviour and culture.

The researchers behind this work believe their non-invasive DNA sampling technique can open up new avenues for archaeologists to directly link genetic and cultural information.

A paper describing the research is published in Nature.

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