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Photos: Looking for Extinct Humans in Ancient Cave Mud

Looking for human relatives

dna from extinct humans

View of the valley from the Caune de l'Arago archaeological site, France. (Image credit: Christian Perrenoud)

Human-made tools and other artifacts are abundant enough in prehistoric sites, scientists say that human skeletal remains are scarce. So researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, decided to go hunting for human DNA instead. They collected the ancient mud from seven archaeological sites in Europe and Asia, finding DNA fragments that belonged to a variety of mammals, including woolly mammoths and cave bears, as well as some DNA from extinct human lineages. Their work is detailed in the April 27, 2017, issue of the journal Science. [Read the full story on the search for human DNA]

Here, the view of the valley from the Caune de l'Arago archaeological site in France.

Sediment found

dna from extinct humans

Svante Pääbo showing the location of a sediment sample collected at the site of Caune de l’Arago, France, from a layer dated to 450,000 years ago. (Image credit: Christian Perrenoud)

Svante Pääbo points to the location of a sediment sample collected at the site of Caune de l'Arago, France, from a layer dated to 450,000 years ago.

Collection

dna from extinct humans

Svante Pääbo showing the location of a sediment sample collected at the site of Caune de l’Arago, France, from a layer where a 560,000-year-old human tooth was discovered in 2015. (Image credit: Christian Perrenoud)

Svante Pääbo shows the location of a sediment sample collected at the site of Caune de l'Arago, France, from a layer where a 560,000-year-old tooth from an extinct human relative was discovered in 2015.

Russian cave

dna from extinct humans

Entrance to the archaeological site of Chagyrskaya Cave, Russia. (Image credit: Richard G. Roberts)

The entrance to the archaeological site of Chagyrskaya Cave in Russia, where the researchers took sediment samples for DNA analysis. They found DNA linked to Neanderthals in their samples.

The cave

dna from extinct humans

View of the valley from the Chagyrskaya Cave archaeological site, Russia. (Image credit: Richard G. Roberts)

View of the valley from the Chagyrskaya Cave archaeological site, Russia.

The rocks

dna from extinct humans

Stratigraphic profile of Chagyrskaya Cave, Russia, from which sediment samples were collected for genetic analyses. (Image credit: Richard G. Roberts)

A stratigraphic profile of Chagyrskaya Cave, Russia, from which sediment samples were collected for genetic analyses.

Across the world

dna from extinct humans

View of the archaeological site of Trou Al’Wesse, Belgium. (Image credit: Monika V. Knul)

View of the archaeological site of Trou Al'Wesse, Belgium. The scientists found DNA linked to Neanderthals in samples collected from this cave, though no actual skeletal remains from hominins have been found in those layers.

Layers of time

dna from extinct humans

Stratigraphic profile of Trou Al‘Wesse, Belgium, from which sediment samples were collected for genetic analyses. (Image credit: Monika V. Knul)

Over time, layers of sediment and any remains from human or other activity form on top of the ground only to be covered up by the next round of activity. In that way, when scientists take cores or other vertical samples of sediments, they can view a window back in time. Here, the geological layers of Trou Al'Wesse, a large cave in Belgium. The study scientists collected samples from the different layers, or strata, in order to run genetic analysis.

At work

dna from extinct humans

Becky Miller sampling sediment for genetic analyses at the archaeological site of Trou Al’Wesse, Belgium. (Image credit: Monika V. Knul)

Becky Miller samples sediment for genetic analyses at the archaeological site of Trou Al'Wesse, Belgium. [Read the full story on the search for human DNA]

Genetic samples

dna from extinct humans

Marie Soressi sampling sediment for genetic analyses at the archaeological site of Les Cottés, France. (Image credit: Matthew Wilson)

Marie Soressi samples sediment for genetic analyses at the archaeological site of Les Cottés, France. DNA from several mammals was found at this site: woolly mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses, cave bears, cave hyenas and others.

In France

dna from extinct humans

The archaeological site of Les Cottés, France. (Image credit: M. Soressi/S. Schatz)

The archaeological site of Les Cottés, France.