Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Ancient Human DNA Sequenced

By Stephen Luntz

The oldest complete sequence of human DNA has been determined from 4000-year-old human hair.

The oldest complete sequence of human DNA has been determined from 4000-year-old human hair found in Greenland. The male individual from which it was taken was
part of the Saqqaq, a cultural grouping that disappeared almost 3000 years ago.

It is not known whether the Saqqaq people were displaced by later arrivals or interbred with them. According to Dr Michael Bunce of Murdoch University’s School of Biological Sciences and Biotechnology, who co-authored a paper on the sequencing in Nature, the mitochondrial DNA indicates that the individual was from north-eastern Siberia and was racially different from any other population known to have inhabited Greenland. The individual in question had brown eyes, dark skin, shovel-shaped teeth and a tendency to baldness.

“This research heralds a new era of archaeology, and shows how small fragments of hair and bone stored in museum collections can provide exciting new ways of studying human history,” Bunce said. While sections of much older DNA have been sequenced from early humans, Bunce says this is the oldest case of complete genome sequencing.

Bunce has helped to extract intact plant DNA from 800,000-year-old ice cores, but notes that humans at that time hadn’t left Africa. Since environmental conditions are important to the survival of DNA, the discovery of even older human DNA that can be fully sequenced will be limited to colder and drier climates.

The research was led by Prof Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen, who achieved fame shortly afterwards with the extraction of DNA from a 30–48,000-year-old Siberian hominin, possibly a distinct species that co-existed with Neanderthals and Homo sapiens.