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Written in bone

Genetic data from ancient Europeans are rewriting the prehistory of the continent

By
2:30pm, May 2, 2014

KEEPING CLEAN  When studying ancient specimens, researchers work in ultraclean rooms to avoid contaminating samples with DNA from modern people or the environment.

Carles Lalueza-Fox nearly missed an opportunity to paint the genetic portrait of a 7,000-year-old Spaniard.

In 2006, spelunkers stumbled across the ancient remains of two men in a cave in Spain’s Cantabrian mountain range. Lalueza-Fox, an evolutionary geneticist at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona, got a call inviting him to examine the skeletons’ DNA.

“I told them I wasn’t interested,” he recalls. Most of the genetic material in the bones had probably long since crumbled into tiny, unreadable fragments, he assumed. Plus, the technology to piece together nearly disintegrated genetic information wasn’t up to the task. Even if it had been, the skeletons’ DNA had probably become so contaminated with present-day people’s DNA that it would be nearly impossible to tell the old from the new. “There was nothing I could do with it.” He turned down the offer and didn’t think much about it again

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