PC Archeologist uses DNA to provide new insights into ancient peoples

Monday, June 8, 2020
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PHOENIX 6/8/2020– Dr. William Schaffer is helping to shake up science. And he’s doing it using teeth. As an anthropology professor and archaeologist, Dr. Schaffer is also the Chair of the Liberal Arts Department at Phoenix College. His expertise is in biological anthropology and archaeology, or bioarchaeology - specifically the study of ancient bones and teeth in context. 

You can tell a lot about a civilization from teeth – like where ancient peoples have lived, migrated and more. In this case, Science magazine is interested in what Dr. Schaffer and his colleagues have learned – because it shakes up the traditional thinking that DNA couldn’t be extracted from ancient skeletal and dental tissues from tropical climates. 

“The Caribbean islands appear to be the last part of the Americas to be settled by humans,” said Schaffer. “We do not know precisely how it was done, and from whence the people came conclusively. Archaeologists have noticed - from associations with pottery - that some populations may have come from mainland South America.” 

Scholars debate that Caribbean island populations could have originated from North, Central, and South America, or all the above. One popular assumption is the Caribbean Sea was populated via island hopping, starting with one island to the next and so on. 

But as Schaffer said, “This leaves little room for ideas about interaction, interconnectedness, and even back migration. We are now seeing more conclusive evidence that the Caribbean Sea was a well-traversed system of waterways, just like the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System.”

The team’s research in the forthcoming Science paper uses ancient DNA recovered from 93 individuals that lived throughout the Caribbean between 400 and 3200 years ago. “What we found was evidence for three migratory waves: two earlier dispersions into the Western Caribbean prior to the invention of pottery, that could be related to contemporaneous migratory events occurring in North American, and then a third of ceramic-making peoples from South America,” noted Schaffer.

How does a scientist get into such a niche? This is a culmination of more than ten years of work. In the late 2000s, Schaffer helped a group of archeologists at Preacher’s Cave, a sea cave located on the northern aspect of the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas. Inside, they found some of the most intact human remains of the Lucayans, the people that eventually discovered Christopher Columbus and his crew in 1492. 

That work got the attention of like-minded scholars who started contacting Dr. Schaffer, asking about his research. One of those researchers was Dr. Hannes Schroeder of The Globe Institute at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. Hannes was curious about the teeth recovered from the cave.

“They were conducting this groundbreaking research that allowed them to extract nuclear and mitochondrial DNA from archaeological dental tissues. It was fascinating,” said Schaffer. “The problem was that even ten years ago, scientists were skeptical if ancient DNA could be extracted from archaeological skeletal and dental tissues recovered from tropical environments. For many of my colleagues and I, we have upended this notion.”

Those colleagues? They are from all over the world, including those at the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

The study was funded by the Max Planck Society, the European Research Council and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and conducted in the context of the ERC Synergy Project Nexus1492 and the SSHRC Project on Cuban Population Diversity.

“This type of research changes our assumptions about bodies of water as insurmountable obstacles for human habitation hundreds if not thousands of years ago. Also, as archaeologists, we likely underestimate the seafaring abilities of past peoples,” said Schaffer.

He is now working on a team to examine how populations moved around specific island chains, like the Bahamas, looking at population histories on a smaller scale.

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