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Left on the Floor

Researchers are trying to collect ancient human DNA from the floors of caves, NPR reports.

Most ancient human bones and teeth have been found in caves, leading Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology researchers to postulate that ancient DNA might be found within the dust and dirt of cave floors. Max Planck's Matthias Meyer has isolated DNA from such a spot and is beginning to examine it to determine whether it contains ancient human DNA or that of modern humans that ventured in the cave or bacteria, NPR's All Things Considered reports.

If they are able to find ancient human DNA in this way, the researchers say it will open up further avenues of research that won't rely on bone fragments. Janet Kelso, also at Max Planck, tells NPR they could use such an approach to study Neanderthals, who live in Europe for hundreds of thousands of years during which the region underwent a climactic change. She says if they are able to get Neanderthal DNA from various points in time, they could examine whether a changing climate contributed to their demise.

"How were they adapting to the environment? How did they differ over time? Can we understand what happened to them in the end?" Kelso adds. "That may not be something you can tell from the sequence, but it would be interesting to try."