Unlocking the Past: How Archaeologists Are Rewriting Human History with Ancient DNA

Unlocking the Past: How Archaeologists Are Rewriting Human History with Ancient DNA

by Martin Jones
Unlocking the Past: How Archaeologists Are Rewriting Human History with Ancient DNA

Unlocking the Past: How Archaeologists Are Rewriting Human History with Ancient DNA

by Martin Jones



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In Unlocking the Past, Martin Jones, a leading expert at the forefront of bioarchaeology—the discipline that gave Michael Crichton the premise for Jurassic Park—explains how this pioneering science is rewriting human history and unlocking stories of the past that could never have been told before. For the first time, the building blocks of ancient life—DNA, proteins, and fats that have long been trapped in fossils and earth and rock—have become widely accessible to science. Working at the cutting edge of genetic and other molecular technologies, researchers have been probing the remains of these ancient biomolecules in human skeletons, sediments and fossilized plants, dinosaur bones, and insects trapped in amber. Their amazing discoveries have influenced the archaeological debate at almost every level and continue to reshape our understanding of the past.

Devising a molecular clock from a certain area of DNA, scientists were able to determine that all humans descend from one common female ancestor, dubbed "Mitochondrial Eve," who lived around 150,000 years ago. From molecules recovered from grinding stones and potsherds, they reconstructed ancient diets and posited when such practices as dairying and boiling water for cooking began. They have reconstituted the beer left in the burial chamber of pharaohs and know what the Iceman, the 5,000-year-old hunter found in the Alps in the early nineties, ate before his last journey. Conveying both the excitement of innovative research and the sometimes bruising rough-and-tumble of scientific debate, Jones has written a work of profound importance. Unlocking the Past is science at its most engaging.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781628724790
Publisher: Arcade
Publication date: 07/12/2016
Format: eBook
Pages: 348
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Martin Jones is the first holder of the George Pitt-Rivers Professorship of Archaeological Science at Cambridge University and was chairman of the international Ancient Biomolecules Initiative research program.

Read an Excerpt


a different kind of past

first encounters with archaeology

A visit to a museum is quite different from actually digging up the past. In a museum, conserved objects are seen behind glass, neatly arranged and labelled in their controlled environment of scholarly explanations and humidity meters. An archaeological dig is something else. Here, the past is dirty, sticky, tactile, and quite often smelly. All this came as some surprise with my first taste of archaeology in the field, three decades ago. I had somehow imagined there would be a great deal of brushing, sifting and so forth, with one of those museum objects very occasionally emerging from the dust. In reality, what our ancestors have left beneath the ground is much more varied and challenging than that.

Rather than brushing and sifting, my introduction to field archaeology involved much wielding of picks. We pushed enormous battered wheelbarrows and hurled shovel-loads of earth as the sludge from a rather wet Somerset field found its way into our boots. Along with that moist sensation came surprise at the sheer quantity and variety of things emerging out of the ground. As our spades penetrated the turf of a slight mound in the middle of this field, our finds trays quickly filled, but not only with the kinds of objects seen behind museum glass. True, there were fragments of the elaborately decorated Glastonbury Ware pottery, its dark burnished surface adorned with the kind of swirling designs we associate with Celtic art forms across Europe. It was an unusual sensation to have been the first to hold such an artefact for over 2,000 years. But there were also large numbers of discarded animal bones, not so often seen in archaeological displays, some broken up for the soup bowl and glue pot, others elegantly fashioned into the weaving equipment of the ancient village dwellers. One day one of the diggers found another trace of their everyday lives, a broken pot spilling over with small black pellets. On closer inspection these pellets proved to be cereal grains, blackened by charring. We gathered around to peer down on the curiosity, before it was taken away to be entered into the record books of that delightful antiquarian category 'small finds', which is the archaeologist's repository for coins, beads, oddments, and anything that falls outside the most familiar categories.

As we dug down, the range of surviving materials increased. By the time the adjacent turf-line was at the level of our waists, that range had broadened dramatically. The grey clays we had been removing gave way to something very different. This blackened peat below was full of all the things that had decayed from the sediments above. Our trowels teased their way through, to reveal leaves, nuts, and vast quantities of wood. As pieces of the freshly exposed peat were pulled apart, branches of birch buried for over two millennia revealed their silvery, flaky bark. Blades of grass could be seen that still seemed to be green, as if the chlorophyll within them had remained intact. Now that they had been exposed to the air, that green coloration quickly changed to brown, just as a host of other processes of breakdown and decay set in. That exposed peat was soon peppered with insect holes, as burrowing soil animals responded with enthusiasm to the opening of the larder door. Waterlogged and sealed off from the air, the organic peats had been protected from the foraging of these creatures. We archaeologists had taken that protection away and now the limbo in which these fragments of life had been suspended would soon come to an end. In the case of the wood, this change took place before our eyes. When first exposed, the wood fragments within the peat seemed solid enough. Their surface features and patterned grain were clear to see, the main distinction from modern wood being their darkened colour. Once lifted and exposed on the grassy verge beside our trench, these pieces began to shrink as the water within them evaporated. They would twist and crack, and their surfaces would become flaky. Their solidity had been an illusion, only maintained while they remained within their enclosed and waterlogged refuge.

None of this curious decay caused great waves back in the 1960s when that Somerset dig was underway. The main business of archaeology lay beyond those flaking timber fragments on the grassy verge, a place in which another set of transformations was busily taking place. The excavated finds were being washed and marked. Toothbrushes and nailbrushes were scrubbing away in bowls of cold, murky water. The task was to remove all those things that separated the dig from the museum–the dirt, the peat, the stickiness and the smell–in order that the object we had unearthed might one day inhabit a neat museum drawer, if not a plinth within a humidity-controlled cabinet.

Since the 1960s, our perception as archaeologists of what we are digging up has changed. It has become clear that what we left behind in those peaty sediments, on the earthy surfaces we scrubbed from the pots, from the bones and organic objects, and even the partially decomposed materials we can smell, may be rich in intimate clues about past lives. We would no longer reduce what lay beneath that shallow mound in a Somerset field to an assortment of cleaned pottery fragments and other durable, easily visible objects. Bit by bit, other data were gathered and analysed as part of the archaeological routine. First came the more stable biological materials, the animal bones, and then those charred cereal grains. Then methods were refined for conserving and gleaning information out of all that waterlogged wood and the other debris within the peat. Most recently of all, it has become clear that the reason any of that organic material survives at all is because even the molecules of which it is built retain a remarkable trace of its fragile and intricate structure for thousands, even millions, of years. Those molecules can be hunted down and analysed in their own right, and have a considerable story of their own to tell.

disciplines in flux

The great changes that have happened in archaeology, in the time that has elapsed since I first got my socks wet in a Somerset field, have not taken place in isolation. A perennial human curiosity as to what traces of the past might linger on has been an important driver of those changes, but not the only one. The things we wish to know about the past have also changed. Our queries have drawn us more and more towards organic traces, and then to the molecular information within them. Back in the days of my first dig, the question in an archaeologist's mind as he or she pondered the trays of washed and marked pottery was how those durable artefacts fitted into some grand scheme of European prehistory. The swirling patterns we had found incised on those pot fragments bore some resemblance to patterns found on metal swords and mirrors recovered from prehistoric graves in mainland Europe. Arrows could be drawn across the map to link the two, implicitly tracking a distant cultural journey, a movement from mainland Europe to the British Isles, bringing with it a package of cultural ideas and practices, encapsulated in a series of elegant swirls on the side of a pot.

By such reasoning, sites such as this contributed a few pieces to a vast and intricate three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle of Europe, two dimensions of space and one of time, all knitted together by arrows across the map, linking common attributes and design features in the durable remains recovered by excavation. These, it was assumed, traced the paths of a network of cultural journeys, migrations and invasions by which prehistory could be both narrated and explained. In this way, a line could be traced back from the swirling designs on our particular pots, in use in that Somerset lake village a little over 2,000 years ago, to similar swirling patterns on metalwork recovered from the shores of Lake Neuchatel in Switzerland, at a site called La Tene.

Stories of this kind had two weaknesses. Just around the corner was a scientific method of dating, already tried and tested but not yet a routine tool of archaeological excavation. Radiocarbon chronology was in the process of severing and disposing of a number of those arrows. It was becoming clear that migrations and invasions could not be, and were not, the only sources of change in prehistoric society. To tally with the rigid scientific chronology now emerging, archaeologists were forced to look more seriously at the possibility of indigenous change within existing communities, rather than simply drawing arrows between poorly dated objects. This is where the second weakness came in. To examine indigenous change, we really needed to know what life was like, and we did not in fact know a great deal about the ordinary lives of those who used the elegantly decorated pots that had been at the centre of archaeological attention. Such durable artefacts had dominated the whole process of inquiry. The site report would eventually reproduce page after page of illustrations of them. The potter's workplace and the stoneworker's floor were among the few features of a reconstruction drawing that would have any detail–the people, their clothes, their dwellings and their farms dissolving into a semi-impressionistic swirl in the background.

A few years after that excavation, David Clarke at Cambridge attempted to shift focus and to make some sense of the people who actually lived and farmed on the late prehistoric villages of which our excavation had revealed a part. Those same prehistoric villages, the 'lake villages' of Glastonbury and Meare, had been excavated earlier in the century by Arthur Bulleid and George Gray, and a series of weighty tomes had been produced, cataloguing and describing their earlier excavations in great detail. Clarke combed through this data, searching for patterns in space and structure and in the distribution of different kinds of artefacts across them. In the new account he assembled, the emphasis shifted right away from sequence and pottery styles to talk of huts, workshops, granaries and stables. The village had family groups and a place in the landscape. He speculated upon the farming activities in the fields around. The settlement was coming alive, and at the same time, one of Clarke's Cambridge colleagues was beginning to look more closely at the remains of living things from that ancient landscape.

Around the time of my initiation into archaeology in a Somerset field, another team was hunting down a series of earlier features that were immersed within the expanses of peat around us. Waterlogged wooden trackways had been stumbled upon by peat-cutters since the nineteenth century at least, but now they had attracted the attention of someone who recognized that they were prehistoric in date, and who would go on to commit much of his working career to tracing them and the ancient landscapes of which they were part. In 1973, a year after Clarke's exciting paper, John Coles put together a research group of archaeologists, biologists and tree-ring specialists to unlock the treasury of bio-archaeological information contained within the peat. In the same year that the Somerset Levels Project began, a small number of 'archaeological units' were formed in Britain, to rescue archaeological information threatened by development projects. The general image of rescue archaeology at the time was of a cluster of itinerant diggers, working anxiously and rapidly in the shadow of an earthmover. A few of those units took the unusual step of putting the new bio-archaeological research at the forefront of their activities. As one of those itinerant diggers, but with a natural science degree, I became one of those bio-archaeologists in the Oxford Archaeological Unit. There weren't any models for how we should work–we were in the delightful position of making it up as we went along. One of the main tasks facing the newly formed Oxford Unit was the remains of a series of farms and hamlets, contemporary with the Somerset villages discussed above, that were disappearing as the Thames gravels were quarried away. One thing we were clear about–we wanted to do a lot more than scrub and label fragments of pottery. We wanted to float and sieve for seeds, insects and bones, in order to gather the kind of biological data that could enrich the models of prehistory that David Clarke had begun to describe.

As the 1970s progressed, many excavations brought in sieving and flotation alongside the pickaxe and trowel, in order to capture some of that data. More and more organic fragments were found within archaeological sediments. Remains of food, fuel, bodies and building materials were augmented by the debris of wild plants and invertebrates that hinted at the living environments around those living settlements. Many of these required microscopic examination, and the high-power lens brought remarkable detail into view. Even where these organic fragments had been eroded, cooked, eaten away and discoloured, still, more often than not, cellular structure within them remained. In some cases even the nuclei and other sub-cellular structures were visible. Different archaeological scientists used this detail to rebuild environments, living conditions, and methods of food production and preparation.

from ancient tissues to ancient molecules

By the 1980s 'bio-archaeology' had come of age as a routine aspect of archaeological method. The arrow-laden maps of prehistoric cultures had given way to discussions of agricultural practice, house construction and the health and nutrition of ancient rural communities. Prehistoric people and their disappeared worlds were beginning to come to life. But it did not stop there–from the late 1980s another door opened on the archaeological record and what it was able to reveal to us.

The study of ancient people was increasingly concerned with the organic, living processes these new forms of evidence revealed. It was drawing closer to studies of the biological world. But biology too had been going through great changes. To get to the heart of the living world and how it operates, biologists too had expanded the range of their observations. For many years, they had looked within whole organisms to the cells and sub-cellular structures within that formed the mechanics of life. In more recent times, they moved one stage further to the molecules that made those structures work. These included the fatty substances and carbohydrates that fuelled living processes, the proteins that built living tissue and regulated biological pathways, and the molecules that encoded the instructions for all this, the DNA at the heart of each cell. By the time archaeologists were becoming proficient at digging up fragments of ancient organisms and recognizing their tissues, biologists had already progressed deep into the heart of cellular dynamics, to decipher the molecular basis of life.

Exploring the possibilities of bio-archaeology during the 1970s and 1980s, experimenting with some fairly primitive methods of flotation and sieving, and trying to make sense of countless blackened plant fragments from prehistory, we were conscious that the biology we were then introducing into archaeology was already lodged in the past. We were attempting comparative, whole-organism studies that had a lot in common with the kind of natural history that grew in the nineteenth century and blossomed in the early twentieth. They were proving extremely valuable in bringing the archaeological past to life, but at the same time what contemporary biologists were doing suggested that we could probe much deeper. What if there were molecular traces that allowed much greater precision in identification, even when the tissue was fragmented or had disappeared completely? What if these precise identifications could take us beyond species to close relatives, to individuals, even particular genes? All this was speculation, spurred on by what could be seen through our microscopes. Whatever ancient biological material we examined, it was clear that much cellular organization had survived the ravages of time. Perhaps secreted among those cells were intact biomolecules, minute time capsules each with their own record of a distant past.

Some of those biomolecules did persist in a relatively intact state. That much was clear from the organic objects within the peat–they had to be made of something. It was also already clear that the less conspicuously organic remains, such as pieces of pottery, retained some biomolecules. As early as the 1930s, a Boston scientist, Lyle Boyd, realized that the kind of antibodies that could attach themselves to blood proteins found throughout living tissue would also attach themselves to tissue taken from mummified bodies, and she went on to check the blood types of several hundred ancient Egyptians. By the 1970s various analytical chemists, such as Rolf Rottlander in Tubingen and John Evans in London, realized that methods of analysis in organic chemistry had reached levels of sensitivity that would allow slight traces of fatty/oily substances or 'lipids' to be detected inside ancient pots. They went on to use infra-red spectroscopy to track down the animal fats, plant oils, and even cooked eggs that once occupied some of the ancient pots unearthed by archaeologists.


Excerpted from "Unlocking the Past"
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Copyright © 2016 Martin Jones.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements (2001) vii

Foreword (2016) ix

1 A different kind of past 1

2 The quest for ancient DNA 15

3 Our curious cousins 49

4 Final traces of life 81

5 Gaining control 99

6 Ending the chase 135

7 Great journeys 161

8 Beyond DNA 199

9 Friends and relations 235

10 Enemies within 263

11 The hunt goes on 285

References 299

Index 321

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