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Careful With That

Samples from ancient hominins and humans offer tantalizing glimpses into our species' past, but two researchers warn at Nature that sequencing analyses of DNA from these samples should be done with care.

In 2009, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology's Svante Pääbo and his colleagues announced they had generated a draft sequence of the Neanderthal genome and that finding was soon followed by announcements that ancient individuals like Ötzi the Iceman and others had been sequenced, shedding light on how humans interacted with other ancient hominins and on how farming and languages spread across the globe.

In their commentary, Keolu Fox from the University of California, San Diego, and John Hawks from the University of Wisconsin–Madison note that this work "comes at a price." To get the best DNA samples from these ancient bones and teeth, the artifacts must be partially destroyed, they note, and that eliminates possible future studies.

As the number of ancient DNA studies ramp up, Fox and Hawks argue that policies for using samples should be established — such as involving diverse stakeholders in determining whether a study merits sample destruction and creating a database of all ancient samples — so that the information they contain doesn't go to waste.

"Many of the great archaeological sites of prehistory are now empty thanks to early archaeologists — sometimes little more than treasure-hunters — commanding armies of unskilled workers to scoop up the contents of caves, tombs and burial grounds," Fox and Hawks write, adding that such mistakes should not be repeated.