Ancient tooth ornament from Denisova cave sheds light on the woman who wore it last.

Twenty thousand years ago, a deer-tooth pendant was left in a cave in southwestern Siberia. Recently, researchers have caught a glimpse of its last wearer, thanks to a new method developed by Elena Essel, a graduate student at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. This technique allows the extraction of DNA embedded in an artifact’s porous surface, providing valuable insight into cultural practices and social structures of ancient populations.

According to a report in Science, Essel and her team discovered that the best way to extract DNA from porous bone or teeth surfaces is to submerge the entire artifact in a mild sodium phosphate buffer bath and slowly heat it to over 90°C. This method releases trapped ancient DNA without damaging the artifact’s surface texture.

The team’s breakthrough came when archaeologist Maxim Kozlikin from the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences provided a deer tooth pendant from the famous Denisova Cave. The pendant yielded a high amount of mitochondrial and nuclear DNA, revealing that the last wearer was a woman most closely related to people of the Maltinsko-buretskaya culture, who lived 2000 kilometers farther east near Lake Baikal.

By comparing the DNA from both the woman and the elk, the researchers dated the pendant to between 19,000 and 25,000 years ago. This new method is a significant contribution to the field, as it could reveal whether men or women used tools or ornaments and trace trade between populations.

However, it is important to note that the DNA on an artifact’s surface only reveals the last person to wear or handle it, not necessarily its maker. As artifacts are often traded and passed down through generations, researchers would need to analyze DNA from multiple tools in a workshop to gain a comprehensive understanding.

As Essel and her team continue their research, they urge colleagues to wear gloves and face masks when unearthing new artifacts to preserve the DNA for further analysis. This breakthrough could help answer long-debated questions, such as whether Neanderthals or modern humans created certain ornaments and tools found in archaeological sites.

WORDS: Scientific Inquirer Staff.


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