New Technique Can Identify Human Bones From Tiny Fragments

Phalanx discovered in the Denisova Cave. Thilo Parg via Wikicommon

Prehistorical sites can be goldmines for artifacts, but they can also be very confusing for scientists because they can contain a large number of bones and bone fragments from different species. Now a new technique can identify humans bones even if there’s only a tiny fragment left.

An international research team has developed "Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry" (ZooMS) – a technique that reveals the collagen peptide sequence in bone fragments, allowing scientists to identify to which species a bone once belonged.

This technique was used at a key archeological site in Russia's Denisova Cave, where the team was able to identify a single Neanderthal bone from about 2,300 small bone fragments from animals like mammoths, woolly rhinos, wolves, and reindeer.

“This is a real breakthrough, showing that we can now use bioarchaeological methods like ZooMS to search the archaeological record and find even tiny fossil remains, where there are proteins that survive,” said team leader Professor Thomas Higham in a statement.  

Study co-author Svante Pääbo and his group from the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, were able to extract DNA and carbon-date the bone, finding that it belonged to a Neanderthal who lived more than 50,000 years ago. According to the paper, published in Scientific Reports, the bone has acid etching on its surface, suggesting it might have gone through the stomach of a hyena before it was deposited in the cave.

The cave has been hailed as one of the most important sites in understanding early human evolution. Due to environmental conditions in the cave, specimens tend to be preserved exceptionally well, allowing Pääbo and his team to discover a new species of human called Denisovans in 2010.

“In the Palaeolithic period, where we have Neanderthals, Denisovans, and modern humans, this is potentially very important because if the fragments that we recover are big enough then we can date and analyze the DNA from the same bone," added Professor Higham. “One of the big challenges is in understanding what happened when modern humans and Neanderthals met. We want to know over what period of time and where this happened. Fossils are the key, but for modern humans they are extremely rare in archaeological sites. We hope that more work like this will yield more human bone remains.”

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