Human Evolution & Ancient DNA: Beyond Bones & Stones

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The project is about ancient DNA (aDNA) and how it can be used to explore not just the evolution of humans but also how it has helped to shape what being human means.


The development of ever more sophisticated techniques for analysing ancient DNA are revolutionising the study of human evolution. Our understanding of the genetics of extinct human species such as the Neanderthals is gathering pace and the 2011 discovery of ‘Species X’ or the Denisova hominin in the Altai Mountains of Siberia is surely the first of many new species to be identified through genetics rather than anatomical description – a situation unthinkable even twenty years ago. Similarly, our picture of early hominin evolution based on fossils continues to become more nuanced as our understanding of genetics expands in parallel. While advances in genetic techniques allow us to reach further and further into the lives of our distant ancestors it is crucial that we understand how to integrate ancient DNA with fossils and archaeological material. No data set is an island and different types of data record different signals from the past. By focussing on the integration of aDNA with the  bones and stones we will develop a critical but holistic anthropological perspective on the human evolutionary journey. This project seeks to develop an anthropological context for what ancient DNA is (and isn’t) and to develop a framework for combining data from different strands of information such as archaeology, genetics (both human and primate) and climate records from the past, to present a detailed picture of our evolutionary journey.

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