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Anthropological Applications of Ancient DNA: Problems and Prospects

  • Connie J. Mulligan (a1)

The analysis of DNA extracted from archaeological specimens to address anthropological questions is becoming increasingly common. Despite widespread interest in ancient DNA (aDNA), the difficulties inherent in aDNA analysis are not generally appreciated by researchers outside of the field. The majority of samples subjected to aDNA analysis often fail to produce results, and successful analysis is typically limited to specimens that exhibit excellent preservation. Contamination of samples with exogenous DNA is an ongoing problem and requires careful design of research strategies to limit and identify all DNA contaminants. Overall, aDNA analysis is a highly specialized and technical field that requires extensive training and can be quite expensive. Thus, each aDNA study should be carefully planned with significant input from archaeologists, physical anthropologists, linguists, and related researchers and should focus on well-preserved samples that are likely to produce a clear answer to a question that is not amenable to nongenetic analysis. In this manuscript, I explain the problems and prospects of various anthropological applications of aDNA technology. I present a series of previously published studies, which are of general anthropological interest, to illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of aDNA methods in each case. I also provide a checklist of questions to evaluate the utility of archaeological remains for aDNA analysis and to provide guidelines when designing an aDNA study.

El análisis del ADN extraido de muestras arqueológicas para investigar preguntas antropológicas es cada vez más comùn. A pesar del amplio interés, las dificultades inherentes al análisis del ADN antiguo (ADNa) no son generalmente apreciadas por investigadores ajenos a esta especialidad. Típicamente, la mayoría de las muestras sujetas al análisis de ADNa fallan en producir resultados, y los análisis exitosos son limitados generalmente a muestras que exhiben una preservación excelente. La contaminación de las muestras con ADN exógeno es un problema recurrente y necesita un diseño experimental cuidadoso. El campo del análisis del ADN antiguo es muy especializado y técnico, requiere un amplio entrenamiento técnico y puede ser bastante costoso. Así, cada estudio de ADNa debe ser planeado cuidadosamente con un aporte significativo de arqueólogos, antropólogos físicos, lingüistas e investigadores relacionados al tema de trabajo. A su vez, se debe enfocar en un número pequeño de muestras bien preservadas que produzcan una respuesta clara para una pregunta que no puede ser contestada con un estudio no-genético. En este manuscrito, explico los problemas y las perspectivas de varias aplicaciones antropológicas de la tecnología de ADNa. Presento una lista de estudios previamente publicados de interés antropológico general para ilustrar los puntos fuertes y las debilidades de los métodos de ADNa en cada caso. Proporciono también una lista de preguntas para evaluar la conveniencia de un estudio propuesto de ADNa y que pude ser usada como guía en el diseño de un estudio de ADNa.

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