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Ancient DNA Time Travel

With the human genome being both vast and complex, many find it challenging to study. By observing ancient DNA samples, however, University of Chicago's postdoctoral researcher Dr. Hannah M. Moots finds herself immersed within the Iron Age and Roman Mediterranean with an incredible lens into the past.


Starting with an interest in plant domestication, Dr. Moots dedicated herself to studying the relationship between our foods and cultivation methods. Fascinatingly, she found domesticated millet to be bigger in size as well as unable to disperse in soil, unlike their wild counterparts. Both qualities proved to make for more efficient farming as they provided a plentiful and easy to harvest crop.

Moots' interests, however, extended far beyond just the sphere of plants. With the beauty of anthropology's flexibility and vastness, she was able to delve into many other topics that interested her, with ancient DNA being particularly appealing.

By analyzing ancient DNA samples, Moots was able to map and observe different mobility patterns of past Mediterranean populations through a complex process that transformed the bones to DNA extract. Thousands of genetic sequences were extracted, and from that data, Moots was able to pinpoint those mappings to a human genome that provided extraordinary insights into the mobility patterns of early populations.

As the notion of sailing became more popular as a means for travel, different groups of people began to explore beyond their starting homes and dispersed across the Mediterranean extensively. Moots and her colleagues were able to use the data to produce computer-generated maps that visually showcased this phenomenon, and the results were quite fascinating.

The study of these populations, however, was far more complicated for Moots than it may have seemed on the surface.

Very few sites still exist today that were created by early populations, which makes it rather difficult to find concrete evidence for past human settlement. One such exception was the early Punic town Kerkouane, which still (partially) stands and provides awe-inspiring evidence to its past inhabitants' way of life.

Not only that, but the ancient DNA samples provided to her made for even more fascinating discoveries in enriching her understanding of the genetic makeup of Iron Age populations. The city of Kerkouane is observed to have a highly heterogeneous population based on Moots and her team's analysis, and such an outcome is reasonable considering its success in being a port along frequently-used trade routes.

Beautiful photo of the Punic Town of Kerkouane by UNESCO World Heritage.

By comparing the ancient DNA to earlier known populations such as Morocco Late Neolithic farmers, Moots is able to make shocking discoveries into the likely connection between modern North African and early Punic individuals based on their genetic similarities.

Yet, the journey is far from over for Dr. Moots as the possibilities of making new discoveries are endless, and there is still so much unknown that she has yet to explore.

For some people, the thought of bones is no more intriguing than the idea of any other body part, but for others, bones are like time machines that can reveal secrets regarding the past with their layers of preservation.

There are still many misconceptions about human history waiting to be corrected, and it is with the analysis of ancient DNA that such an outcome can be achieved.

The real question remains, though.

Is it really worth it to put in all the work to understand the past?

According to Dr. Moots, it absolutely is. The past continues to shape our present, and the study of ancient DNA is only the beginning of making modern-day life an even greater and more meaningful experience to live in.

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