Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Books: Molecule Sleuth Volume 55 Number 5, September/October 2002
by Frederika Kaestle

DNA from the Mongolian wild horse is helping rewrite the history of domestication. (Courtesy San Diego Zoo) [LARGER IMAGE]

Two lab-coated scientists drop a fragment of prehistoric pottery into a vial of hydrofluoric acid and then smile as it dissolves away. Are these evil scientists from the next Indiana Jones movie? No, simply molecular anthropologists studying milk proteins tightly bound to the pottery. This image closes Martin Jones' absorbing book, The Molecule Hunt: Archaeology and the Search for Ancient DNA (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2001; $26.95).

A bioarchaeologist, Jones explores new methods of analyzing ancient molecules that lead to novel insights on questions ranging from the fate of Neandertals to recipes for cooked cabbage in medieval England. The book begins with a description of Jones' own experience researching ancient molecules and a brief history of the study of ancient DNA. He then hooks us with a discussion of the oldest "human" DNA recovered thus far--that of several Neandertals. He goes on to cover an array of topics, including how molecular evidence is used to probe the origins of plant and animal domestication (his favorite topic), human migration, and the history of human disease. The final chapter highlights promising new approaches to ancient molecules, such as techniques to analyze those that have become bound to materials like pottery.

Jones does an impressive job describing the science behind these studies, including simple explanations of the relevant genetics, biochemistry, physics, and even statistics. Many books lose their currency in the lag between being written and published, but Jones managed to obtain unpublished results from scientists in the field, resulting in a book that is remarkably up-to-date. He is at his best when telling the stories of individual people, such as two young women buried in Japan 2,000 years ago, whose ancient DNA indicates they were both immigrants to the community.

Although Jones glosses over the political and social implications of ancient DNA work, and could be a bit more skeptical in some cases (such as early DNA research on prehistoric Pacific islanders, or the inexplicable success in accessing nuclear DNA from ancient remains found at Florida's Windover Bog site), on the whole The Molecule Hunt is a comprehensive review. The take-home message is that ancient molecules tell us that human prehistory is more complicated than we thought, sometimes in very surprising ways.

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© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America