Katerina Douka joins the Department of Archaeology

Douka and her team have been awarded an ERC Starting Grant to search for human fossils, particularly Denisovans

June 01, 2017

Katerina Douka will be joining the MPI-SHH from June 1 as a group leader in the Department of Archaeology. In 2016, Katerina was awarded a 5-year ERC Starting Grant, “Fossil Fingerprinting and Identification of New Denisovan Remains from Pleistocene Asia” (FINDER).

Douka and a team of colleagues inside Denisova Cave. Zoom Image
Douka and a team of colleagues inside Denisova Cave.

One of the major difficulties in the study of human evolution and prehistoric archaeology stems from the dearth of fossils of extant and extinct human species. For example, from the entire Asian continent, only a handful of human fossils have been unearthed to date. While millions of fragmented bones can be discovered in the course of an excavation, there is not currently a fast, cheap and reliable approach to pick out the human bones from a pile of animal ones. The FINDER grant will allow Douka and her team to do exactly that: to discover and study new human fossils from Asia.

In this project, which will run from June 2017 to May 2022, Katerina and her team will apply a combination of analytical techniques – including collagen peptide fingerprinting (also known as ZooMS), radiocarbon dating, stable isotope and ancient DNA analyses – designed to identify, date and genetically characterize new human fossils from Asia. A particular emphasis will be given to the discovery of Neanderthal and Denisovan remains. Using a high-throughput approach, this work will target bulk collections of unidentified bone fragments (>30,000 samples) from dozens of Pleistocene sites across north and south/southeast Asia dating from approximately 100,000 to 10,000 years ago.

Unidentifiable bones targeted for analysis. Zoom Image
Unidentifiable bones targeted for analysis.

One of the major goals is the discovery of new remains of the elusive Denisovans: an extinct human species discovered in Siberia in 2010 on the basis of ancient DNA retrieved from a tiny finger bone. Ultimately, the project aims to rectify the dearth of ancient human fossils from Asia and expand our understanding of the Denisovans and other archaic hominids, reveal their age, geographic range and subsistence strategies, as well as their genetic variation and archaeological signature.

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