Researchers Identify Owner of Ancient Siberian Jewelry

A new way of pulling DNA from soft materials such as bones, teeth and tusks makes it easier for scientists to find out about objects made by ancient people.

As a result, researchers are working to learn about those who made and wore objects taken from a cave in what is now far eastern Russia.

Elena Essel is with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. She is the lead writer of a study recently published in the journaling nature. She and her team say they now know a lot about jewelry made 20,000 years ago — and who wore it.

A top view of the pierced elk tooth discovered in the Denisova Cave in southern Siberia is seen in this undated handout picture.  Scientists have recovered the DNA of a woman from the tooth, which was used as a pendant 19,000 to 25,000 years ago.  (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology/Handout via REUTERS)

A top view of the pierced elk tooth discovered in the Denisova Cave in southern Siberia is seen in this undated handout picture. Scientists have recovered the DNA of a woman from the tooth, which was used as a pendant 19,000 to 25,000 years ago. (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology/Handout via REUTERS)

Essel is a molecular biologit. She called the old items, such as an animal’s tooth with a hole punched through it, “extremely fascinating.”

The scientists said a Stone Age woman wore the pendants. The piece of jewelry was carefully recovered from the Denisova Cave in Siberia.

The new way of looking at DNA permits researchers to link one item, such as a piece of jewelry, to one person. The researchers only know very basic things about the person beyond their DNA. The DNA comes from sweat, bodily fluids or skin cells.

They study the DNA at a lab in Leipzig, Germany. Scientists place the item into a liquid that “washes” out the DNA. They can then look at the liquid and find out about the people who once held the item.

In this case, they say the pendant belongs to a woman who lived between 19,000 and 25,000 years ago. They could not say if the woman made it or only wore it.

Essel said the new DNA science permits her to “travel back and have a glance into these people’s lives.”

Scientist Elena Essel of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology works in the institute's clean laboratory in Leipzig, Germany on the pierced elk tooth discovered in the Denisova Cave in southern Siberia in this undated handout picture.  (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology/Handout via REUTERS)

Scientist Elena Essel of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology works in the institute’s clean laboratory in Leipzig, Germany on the pierced elk tooth discovered in the Denisova Cave in southern Siberia in this undated handout picture. (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology/Handout via REUTERS)

Essel said holding the item in his hand transported him back in time and he could imagine the person who made it.

She thought of a lot of questions, such as: “Who was the person who made it? Was this tool passed down from one generation to the next, from a mother to a daughter or from a father to a son?”

Essel added, “That we can start addressing these questions using genetic tools is still absolutely incredible to me.”

I’m Dan Friedell.

Dan Friedell adapted this story for Learning English based on a report by Reuters.

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Words in This Story

journaling –n. a magazine that reports items of special interest to small groups of people

jewelry –n. decorative objects people wear on their bodies

fascinating –adj. very interesting

pendants –n. a piece of jewelry worn around the neck

glance –v. to look quickly at something

incredible –adj. hard to believe

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