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26 August 2007
Ancient quid yields DNA

A few years ago, Steven LeBlanc, an archaeologist and collections manager at Harvard University's Peabody Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, realized he could extract ancient DNA from prehistoric quids - wads of plant material chewed by ancient Native Americans.
     In the September Journal of Field Archaeology, LeBlanc and several co-authors report that they have recovered DNA from 2000-year-old quids, as well as from aprons worn by Native Americans. The quids and aprons belonged to a vanished tribe that archaeologists call the Western Basketmakers. Between about 500 BCE and 500 CE, they lived in caves and rock shelters in what is now southern Utah and northern Arizona.
     After getting the idea to test quids, LeBlanc teamed up with Thomas Benjamin, a cancer biologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, and other researchers. They pulled mitochondrial DNA from 48 quids and from 18 aprons that had been stained with what was likely menstrual blood. Then they scanned the DNA found that about 14% of these samples contained a molecular marker called haplogroup A. This haplogroup is extremely rare in the Southwest, but it occurs in about half of the population of Central America. The intermediate frequency in the sample of Western Basketmakers fits with the idea that they migrated from somewhere in central Mexico, bringing agriculture into the turf of foragers. The results were confirmed by a second laboratory, and LeBlanc says the absence of European haplogroups rules out the possibility of contamination.
     The larger conclusion is that museum artifacts can provide a new source of data. Quids are common in collections, notes Connie Mulligan of the University of Florida, Gainesville, although aprons less so.
     
Source: ScienceNOW (22 August 2007)

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