October 02, 2006

DNA to be extracted from Kent's cavern tooth

According to the Scotsman:
SCIENTISTS are attempting to extract DNA for the first time from the fossilised bones thought to be of a Neanderthal man who roamed Britain 35,000 years ago.

Experts plan to use a tooth from an upper jaw to establish whether the closest relative of modern humans lived on the British Isles later than it was once thought.

The fragment of an upper jaw, which was found in 1926 at Kent's Cavern in Devon, was originally thought to be human, but experts now think it could date back even further.

Chris Stringer, research leader in Human Origins at the Natural History Museum in London, said it was a critical test that could have historic results. The only late Neanderthal fossils on the British Isles were found on the Channel Islands around 1910.

However, Stringer said the teeth discovered at the site date back to a time when the island was joined to France around 50,000 years ago.

The director of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project said: "Neanderthal DNA is very distinct and would show up clearly in tests. It is a critical test as this could be the first late Neanderthal fossil on mainline Britain.

"But it is also historic if there is modern human DNA as this would prove they were here earlier than previously thought.

"Neanderthals are so close to us in time, living 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, and a closely related species. We have lots of Neanderthal tools but no fossils. The team is excited about the tests, but we need a bit of luck as the DNA may not have survived."

The roots, crown, size and shape of the tooth, which is thought to date back 35,000 years, would also be studied.

Torquay Museum in Devon, which looks after the piece of jaw bone, has agreed in principle to the DNA and carbon dating tests, Stringer said.

The group, which found evidence which dated the arrival of primitive ancestors in Britain to 700,000 years ago, 200,000 years earlier than previous findings, includes archaeologists, paleontologists and geologists from the Natural History Museum, the British Museum, Royal Holloway, University of London, and the University of Durham.

AHOB was set up in 2001 and funded for five years with £1.2m from the Leverhulme Trust which provides grants for education and research.

The second phase of research, which is called AHOB2 and runs until 2010, starts today after the Leverhulme Trust provided a £999,000 grant.

The next phase will include comparative studies in continental Europe.

The new project will also test the theory that there were no humans in Britain between 180,000 and 60,000 years ago due to the creation of the English Channel, making access to Britain more difficult.

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