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The Molecule Hunt:
Archaeology and the Search for Ancient DNA
A book by Martin Jones

What was life really like for our ancestors? What did the Iceman, the 5,000-year-old hunter found in the Alps several years ago,
eat before his last journey? What did pharaohs beer taste like ?
Who first domesticated horses and ancient grasses? And also: how different are we from the Neanderthals?

The answers to all these questions are coming from the new science of bio-archaeology, whose discoveries and analyses have already helped revise the human genealogical tree.

A revolution is underway in archeology. For the first time, the building blocks of ancient life (DNA, proteins, and fats that have long been trapped in fossils and earth and rock) have become widely accessible to science and can be used to asnwer such questions.

Working at the cutting edge of genetic and other molecular technologies, researchers have been probing the remains of these ancient bio-molecules in human skeletons, sediments and fossilized plants, dinosaur bones, and insects trapped in amber. Their amazing discoveries have influenced the archeological debate at almost every level and continue to reshape our understanding of the past.

Using these methods, scientist have already:

  • devised a molecular clock from a certain area of DNA,
    determining that all humans descend from one common female ancestor, dubbed “The Mitochondrial Eve,” who lived around 150,000 years ago.
  • extracted DNA from Neanderthal bones, used with the same clock to measure how closely we are related to the Neanderthals.
  • reconstructed ancient diets and posited when such practices as dairying and boiling water for cooking began.
  • from the traces of blood proteins on an arrowhead, they have been able to identify its animal source and the prey of the long-dead hunter.
  • not only revised the date for when the first humans
    crossed the Aleutian land-bridge to America but also have determined what fellow creatures, both domesticated and bacterial, must have accompanied them.

All this has been done using what in the past archeologists used to discard: organic materials attached to the tools, contained in corpses, and so on.

In The Molecule Hunt, a leading expert at the forefront of bio-archeology (the discipline that gave Michael Crichton the premise for Jurassic Park) explains how this pioneering science is rewriting human history and unlocking stories of the past that could never have been told before. Martin Jones has been a leader in bio-archaeological research for 25 years. He is the George Pitt-Rivers Professor of Archaeological Science at Cambridge University and was chairman of the five-year International Ancient Bio-molecule Initiative. He lives in Cambridge, England.
Told from the vantage of a pioneer in the field, this book presents the
first comprehensive account of the major breakthroughs in bio-archeology for the last quarter century. Conveying both the excitement of innovative research and the sometimes bruising rough-and-tumble of scientific debate, Martin Jones has written a work of profound importance. The Molecule Hunt is science at its most engaging.

The Molecule Hunt: Archaeology and the Search for Ancient DNA
by Martin Jones

Bio-archaeology, the science that finds and studies ancient DNA, has inspired its share of science fiction, but as Jones shows, the work of bio-archaeologists like him sheds light on what the distant past was like in ways never before thought possible. Those who recall high-school or college biology... Read more


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