Just over a decade ago, a ball of 4000-year-old human hair tangled up in a whalebone comb ignited the first ever reconstruction of the ancient human genome. Since then, our understanding of ancient human DNA has exploded.
Despite being discovered in the 1980s, the technology to sequence DNA from the hair wasn’t available until 2012, when evolutionary biologist Eske Willerslev used a technique called shotgun sequencing to reconstruct the very first ancient genome.
They found that the hair once belonged to a Saqqaq man, the earliest known people to settle in Greenland.
To celebrate this achievement, and the following data obtained for the next decade, a review of that journey was published in Nature.
“The last ten years has been full of surprises in the understanding of the peopling of the Americas – I often feel like a child at Christmas waiting to see what exciting DNA present I am about to unwrap!” Says Willerslev.
“What has really blown my mind is how resilient and capable the early humans we have sequenced DNA from were – they occupied extremely different environments and often populated them in a short space of time.
“We were taught in school that people would stay put until the population grew to a level where the resources were exhausted. But we found people were spreading around the world just to explore, to discover, to have adventures.
“The last 10 years have shown us a lot about our history and what it means to be human. We won’t ever see that depth of human experience on this planet again – people entered new areas with absolutely no idea of what was in front of them. It tells us a lot about human adaptability and how humans behave.”
Previously, researchers had to rely on archaeological evidence, which don’t show all of the nuance that comes with genomic sequencing.
“Genomic evidence has shown connections that we didn’t know existed between different cultures and populations and the absence of connections that we thought did exist. Human population history been far more complex than previously thought,” says David Meltzer, an archaeologist based at Southern Methodist University, an co-author of the review.
“A lot of what has been discovered about the peopling of the Americas could not have been predicted. We have seen how rapidly people were moving around the world when they have a continent to themselves, there was nothing to hold them back. There was a selective advantage to seeing what was over the next hill.”
Willerslev’s work over the past decade has in many instances enabled the repatriation of ancient human burials and bodies to Native American groups, by demonstrating direct ancestral connections between people alive today and some of the first Americans – including the famous Kennewick Man.
Notable discoveries using ancient DNA
Hair from the whalebone comes was sequenced, leading to the first full genome of an ancient human.
24000-year-old remains found in south-central Siberia were sequenced. The genomics showed the remains belonged to a four-year-old boy were, which contributed to the ancestry of Siberian and Native American populations.
First Native American genome sequence published, from the remains of a baby boy buried over 12,000 years ago in Anzivk, Montana.
Thanks to sequencing, the Kennewick Man – the oldest and most complete skeleton found in the Americas – the mystery was solved. The 9000-year-old remains belonged to the Ancient One, who was of cultural significance to the Colville Tribe and was a direct ancestor of living Native American peoples. The Ancient One was returned to reburied.
World’s oldest natural mummy – Spirit Cave – was sequenced, unlocking secrets about Ice Age tribes in the Americas. This was part of a study that included the Lovelock skeletons, the Lagoa Santa remains, an Inca mummy, and the oldest remains in Chilean Patagonia, which helped track the movement of peoples across the Americas during and after the Ice Age.
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Deborah Devis is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a Bachelor of Liberal Arts and Science (Honours) in biology and philosophy from the University of Sydney, and a PhD in plant molecular genetics from the University of Adelaide.
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