Palaeogenomics and Revealing the Ancestry of Early Americans

Hypothetical migration events of early Americans. Image taken from Nature article (Raff & Bolnick 2014)

Hypothetical migration events of early Americans. Image taken from Nature article (Raff & Bolnick 2014)

The remains of a young boy buried in Montana 12,600 years ago has revealed the ancestry of one of the earliest populations in America, the Clovis culture. this was discoverd by sequencing the genome of the remains and show that all the indigenous populations across America are descended from a single group which crossed the Bering land bridge. This genome is the first from an ancient American individual to be fully sequenced and it was found that the mitochondrial DNA belongs to a lineage which is thought to be one of the founding lineages carried by the first individuals into America.

Although this research is extremely interesting and useful from a human migration perspective it has had to handle ethical issues surrounding the remains of Native Americans. To attempt to avoid this the leader of the research, Eske Willerslev, wanted to involve Native American communities. By doing this, and others taking a similar approach, perhaps more remains may be examined in the future to build on our understanding of past human migrations.

Read the news article in Nature for more information about addressing how the Native Americans were involved in this research. For more insight into the conclusions drawn from the sequesnced read the full Nature article.


How the Dead Could Help Cure the Future

Anthropologists in Italy have been excavating an abandoned medieval church and have uncovered skeletons which date from the Medieval period running through to the mid-1800s. From these skeletons the DNA is going to be extracted from their teeth and analysis carried out on soil from their stomach area. Why do this? The researchers are hoping to gain more knowledge into the bacteria which caused the Black Death as a very similar strain of the bacteria, Yersinia pestis, still exists in some small rodents in parts of the world today. They want to know why the bacteria moved from rodent to humans and what made the plague spread so quickly in the 14oos.

In another grave, dating to a later period, a mass grave was discovered where the individuals looked to have been buried in a rush. One skeleton in particular was of interest to the researchers as she was the perfect specimen as nearly every bone was in-tact. Again the researchers want to know what killed so many people and why they were buried so hastily. Currently the hypothesis is cholera and now they want to trace the evolution of the disease. 

By conducting research into the dead’s DNA modern medicine may be improved and new vaccines or medicines may be created. This is the reason why we must conduct research on our dead – they are amazing and insightful specimens which may help the future human population.

Go to the official ‘The Thousand-Year Graveyard’ site here:


Death – Ethics of showing human remains in museums

A really interesting audio link from the Wellcome Collection. This is a clip of Hedley Swain, who is the Early London History from the Musuem of London. It’s definitely worth a listen, he refers to the rights of the dead and some of the issues which arrive.

It’s a short clip but it’s very good and I totally agree! Have a listen here