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Archaeo News 

7 July 2009
How chemistry can reveal the secrets of ancient worlds

The day-to-day lives of prehistoric humans have been revealed following new research developed by chemists at the University of Bristol. The research, which combines archaeology with cutting-edge chemistry allowing scientists to reconstruct the past, was presented at the Royal Society's annual Summer Science Exhibition.
     Led by Professor Richard Evershed from the University's School of Chemistry, the team has developed new methods of forensic-style chemistry enabling the extraction of chemical information from organic molecules that have been preserved in archaeological artefacts and geological deposits for hundreds, thousands or even millions of years. Using this information the team is able to unravel key aspects of the lives of ancient peoples, particularly their diet and agricultural practices.
     The latest state-of-the-art analytical chemical techniques are required to reveal and identify the invisible ancient molecules - 'biomarkers' - which are then matched to modern reference materials. These molecular and isotopic 'fingerprints' can be used to trace human activities, adding important new pieces to the jigsaw puzzle of past life on Earth. One of the major challenges the scientists have taken on is the study of organic residues preserved in ancient cooking pots. Degraded animal fats left over from food processing are the most common residues detected. Professor Evershed's group were able to distinguish the chemical and isotopic signatures of milk and body fats of animals. Professor Evershed said: "Identifying the milking of animals based on fat residues in Neolithic pottery dating back nearly 9,000 years shows the specificity that can be achieved through these molecular and isotopic approaches."

Source: Physorg (30 June 2009)

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