February 19, 2013
The misguided nostalgia for our paleo past
The first thing you have to do to study 4,000-year-old DNA is take off your clothes.
I am standing with Oddný Ósk Sverrisdóttir in the airlock room next to the ancient-DNA laboratory at Uppsala University, in Sweden, preparing to see how she and her colleagues examine the bones of human beings and the animals they domesticated thousands of years ago. These scientists are looking for signs of changes in the genes that allow us to consume dairy products past the age of weaning, when all other mammals lose the ability to digest lactose, the sugar present in milk. After that time, dairy products can cause stomach upsets. But in some groups of humans, particularly those from Northern Europe and parts of Africa, lactase—the enzyme that breaks down lactose—lingers throughout life, allowing them to take advantage of a previously unusable food source. Sverrisdóttir and her Ph.D. supervisor, Anders Götherström, study how and when this development occurred, and how it is related to the domestication of cows for their meat and milk. They examine minute changes in genes obtained from radiocarbon-dated bones from archaeological sites around Europe.