This is the blog for GW students taking Human Evolutionary Genetics. This site is for posting interesting tidbits on: the patterns and processes of human genetic variation;human origins and migration; molecular adaptations to environment, lifestyle and disease; ancient and forensic DNA analyses; and genealogical reconstructions.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Reading Between the Lines: Analysing Ancient DNA from Parchment

Prior to the widespread production of paper, parchment produced from animal skins was the preferred medium of Western cultures for the inscription of important messages and correspondence. There is undeniable value in the words of the past preserved on such parchments, as they can tell us about the history of language, law, society, and culture. One aspect of culture most fascinating to elucidate is the origin story of human agriculture and livestock production. Now, a team of researchers reports that such information can be reaped from these ancient documentary treasure troves---not just from the words written on them, but from the parchments themselves.

As ancient and medieval parchments are made from animal skins, they represent, in the words of the researchers, a "reservoir of ancient DNA." In their study of two Northern English documents from the 1600s and 1700s, they found that the skins used for printing had been from a sheep; this gives evidence to the raising and farming of sheep in this geographic region at that point in history, evidence which stands to augment and uphold (or refute/negate, in future studies of parchments from elsewhere) previously understood hypotheses about livestock culture. Naturally, more precious and rarer scrolls from elsewhere in the world may be harder to pry from the hands of their curators for mining of ancient DNA. However, with the promise of elucidating the deep origins of humans' non-consumptive use for different animals--as well as using genetics to map the migration and spread of domestic livestock among vast regions--this technique might be worth reading between the lines for.

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