Local researchers extract oldest Neanderthal DNA on record

1 Jul

Silvia-Frisia-DSC_4201Two University of Newcastle researchers have helped extract the oldest Neanderthal DNA on record.

Conjoint Professor Andrea Borsato and Associate Professor Silvia Frisia are world leading experts in cave and geological structures, and were part of an international team who made the discovery.

The Neanderthal skeleton was first discovered in a cave near the southern Italian town of Altamura in 1993.

Calcite crystals coated the remains; Dr Borsato travelled to Italy to carefully extract a sample that Dr Frisia interpreted.

“It was incredible, you have to pass through a narrow passage. You just see the skull embedded in calcite,” Dr Borsato told 1233 Mornings presenter Jill Emberson.

“It was facing you, with all of the long bones and beaten pieces of the skeleton within a metre.”

Using a micro drill, similar to a dentist’s tool, Dr Borsato was able to sample a piece of the calcite crust attached to the Neanderthals’ bone that was not visible from the cave’s passageway.

“If the skeleton is younger than 50,000 years you can use radio carbon [dating], but in this case it was older… you have to use other methods to bracket the age of the remain,” he said.

“We sampled carefully some tiny little crusts at the top of the bones to date with uranium thorium … the age of this tiny crystal was 130,000 years before present.”

The pair have theorised that the Neanderthal hit his head after stumbling on rocks, later dying in the cave.

Dr Frisia says the discovery is an important tool to help researchers not only discover more about the past, but also the future.

“These guys were living in a special period … a glacial period with warm phases,” she said.

“[It’s easier] to engage the community when you have a human and … you know how this human lived – the environment, the climate, the story.”

“You can have a glimpse of what might happen in the future if we go on with [climate] warming.”

The husband and wife team will continue using the data they gathered to determine what the world’s climate was like when the Neanderthal lived, more than 130,000 years ago.

By Hannah Thompson. Dr Frisia and Dr Borsato spoke to 1233 ABC Newcastle Mornings presenter, Jill Emberson.

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