The New Technique That Helped Make An Amazing Archaeological Discovery

ZooMS costs a fraction of DNA sequencing and is much faster.

Illustration of Neanderthal man sitting around fire holding lance-like weapon; circa 30,000 BC. (Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

A new technique that is much faster than sequencing DNA called ZooMS is being used by archaeologists to identify bones. Using a drill, scientists extract a tiny chip from each bone, which they treat with chemicals that pull out a highly abundant protein called collagen. Then, they use an enzyme that cuts the collagen into pieces, explains The Atlantic, and they weigh those pieces with a mass spectrometer, another instrument. Those measurements are then compared against a reference database of collagens from other animals.

Unlike DNA sequencing, ZooMS cannot identify particular species, but it can tell if a bone belonged to a marine mammal, or a sheep, or a great ape, which is sometimes all the scientist needs. It costs a fraction of DNA sequencing and is very fast, which means researchers can do several hundred bones in a week.

In 2015, a master’s student started to use ZooMS on a “massive one-liter bag of fragmented bones.” Samantha Brown drilled 1,227 fragments from the Denisova Cave, a site high up in Siberia’s Altai Mountains, before she got a hominin hit. She sent that sliver out to get DNA sequenced. It was concluded that the bone came from a Neanderthal. But it was later discovered that the bone contained Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA. The team announced the discovery in August, and it quickly became onE of the most startling finds of the year.

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