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Biochemical and physical correlates of DNA contamination in archaeological human bones and teeth excavated at Matera, Italy

Lookup NU author(s): Kirsty Penkman, Dr Christina Nielsen-Marsh, Dr Matthew Collins


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The majority of ancient DNA studies on human specimens have utilised teeth and bone as a source of genetic material. In this study the levels of endogenous contamination (i.e. present within the sample prior to sampling for the DNA analysis) are assessed within human bone and teeth specimens sampled from the cemetery of Santa Lucia alle Malve, Matera, Italy. This site is of exceptional interest, because the samples have been assayed for 18 measures of biochemical and physical preservation, and it is the only one identified in a study of more than 107 animal and 154 human bones from 43 sites across Europe, where a significant number of human bones was well preserved. The findings demonstrate several important issues: (a) although teeth are more resilient to contamination than bone, both are readily contaminated (presumably through handling or washing), and (b) once contaminated in this way, both are difficult (if not impossible) to decontaminate. Furthermore, although assessed on bone samples, several of the specific biochemical and physical characteristics that describe overall sample preservation, levels of microbial attack and related increases in sample porosity directly correlate with the presence of observable contamination in both bone and teeth samples from individual samples. While we can only speculate on the cause of this relationship, we posit that they provide useful guides for the assessment of whether samples are likely to be contaminated or not. © 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Gilbert MTP, Rudbeck L, Willerslev E, Hansen AJ, Smith C, Penkman KEH, Prangenberg K, Nielsen-Marsh CM, Jans ME, Arthur P, Lynneruo N, Turner-Walker G, Biddle M, Kjolbye B, Collins MJ

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Journal of Archaeological Science

Year: 2005

Volume: 32

Issue: 5

Pages: 785-793

Print publication date: 01/05/2005

ISSN (print): 0305-4403

ISSN (electronic): 1095-9238

Publisher: Elsevier


DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2004.12.008


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