These scientists are not just looking for bones and other tangible evidence of the past. In Satserplia Cave in the Caucasus, they also searched for DNA dating back thousands of years of animals and humans.
Satserpelia Cave in the Georgian Caucasus has been used repeatedly by humans and animals as a place of refuge and residence since the Paleolithic period. But who was there and when cannot be determined from the fossil remains – they are missing. So the team of scientists pictured chose a different approach: They looked for what’s called environmental DNA.
In contrast to genetic material obtained from fossil bones or teeth in the course of archaeological studies, environmental DNA comes from soil samples and is not associated with skeletal remains. Instead, researchers are trying to isolate genetic material directly from the sediments. Once this is done, the obtained DNA fragments are sequenced and compared against genetic databases. This then allows the genetic findings to be assigned.
In the case of searching for DNA in the Satzerpelia Cave documented here, the team led by Berry Gelabert of the University of Vienna found several things: In a 25,000-year-old layer of soil, the researchers identified parts of a human genome that were found in this cave before the Ice Age people were seeking refuge. Its genome shows genetic similarities to a skeleton from this period found in a nearby cave, the researchers report.
Other parts of the genome from Sattherpelia Cave can be dedicated to primitive wolves and bison. These sequences are now used to reconstruct the population history of the wolf and bison in the Caucasus and thus contribute to a better understanding of the population dynamics of these animal species.