10

THE STUDY OF DNA FROM ANCIENT BONES

DNA contains the inherited genetic information which controls the structure, development and metabolism of the body. It is present in all cells, including the osteocytes, osteoblasts and osteoclasts of bone.

The first published report of successful retrieval of DNA from ancient human tissues was by Chinese scientists in 1980, when they recovered it from a rib cartilage from a 2,000-year-old mummy from Hunan province (Herrmann and Hummel 1994). By the late 1980s it had become clear that DNA could also be extracted from ancient bones (Hagelberg et al. 1989; Horai et al. 1989).

The genetic information in ancient DNA recovered from human skeletons may provide an additional means of studying relationships between populations and, on a smaller scale, relationships between groups or individuals in a particular cemetery. It may also provide an additional means of sexing ancient skeletons. In the realm of palaeopathology, it may help us to detect inherited diseases, and it may even be possible to diagnose infectious diseases from traces in the bones of DNA from infecting micro-organisms. However, work on ancient DNA is still in its infancy, so it is as yet unclear to what extent its potential will be realised.


THE NATURE OF DNA

DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is a long, threadlike molecule. It is a polymer; that is, it is composed of a sequence of chemical sub-units, or monomers. In DNA these sub-units are called nucleotides, and they each consist of a sugar, a nitrogenous base and phosphoric acid. There are four different nucleotides; they differ according to which nitrogenous base they contain, either adenine, guanine, thymine or cytosine. The different nucleotides are referred to as A, G, T and C, according to their nitrogenous base. The structure of DNA is twin-stranded, the strands being joined by hydrogen bonds between pairs of bases on opposite nucleotides, adenine always bonds with thymine, guanine with cytosine. The nucleotide sequence on the two strands is thus complementary, the sequence of one determining that of the other. The two strands are not laid flat, but are wound around one another in the famous double helix pattern (Figure 10.1).

Most of a cell’s DNA is located in the chromosomes, threadlike bodies which occur in the nucleus of a cell. The unit of biological information is the gene. Genes are segments of DNA, generally several thousands of nucleotides long, separated from one another by lengths of intergenic, or ‘spacer’ DNA (Figure 10.2). Man has 23 pairs of chromosomes, bearing 50,000 genes. The genetic information in a gene is conveyed by the specific sequence of nucleotides. Given the thousands of nucleotides typically present in a single gene, the number of possible sequences is practically infinite; so, therefore, is the range of information which can be carried.

Although most DNA is located in the chromosomes, some is also present in the mitochondria. Mitochondria lie outside the nucleus and are the

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The Archaeology of Human Bones
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Figures viii
  • Tables xii
  • Preface xiii
  • 1 - The Nature of Bones and Teeth 1
  • 2 - The Nature of an Archaeological Human Bone Assemblage 13
  • 3 - The Determination of Age and Sex 33
  • 4 - Metric Variation 74
  • 5 - Non-Metric Variation 102
  • 6 - Bone Disease 122
  • 7 - Dental Disease 146
  • 8 - Traces of Injury on the Skeleton 162
  • 9 - Chemical Analysis of Bone 182
  • 10 - The Study of Dna from Ancient Bones 197
  • 11 - Cremated Bone 207
  • Bibliography 225
  • Index 240
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