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Anthropology and Ancient DNA Analysis

Ellen Späth in the lab by M. Rivollat


The anthropological study of the human skeletal and dental remains has the capacity to reveal a wide range of information about past societies and uses both well-established as well as innovative methods. The analysis will start with an inventory and assessment of all human material dated to the Final Palaeolithic and Mesolithic. Data collection will focus on elucidating diet, health, mobility, activity and origins.

Diet reconstruction analysis will combine in the first instance reliable data from dental pathologies, skeletal signs of metabolic disease supplemented with stable isotope and proteomic analysis. Markers for health and disease will reconstruct the samples’ health profile using four categorical indicators: trauma, specific stress indicators (rickets, scurvy, etc.), non-specific stress indicators (infection reactions, enamel hypoplasia, cribra orbitalia, porotic hyperostosis, and growth impairment), degenerative joint disease and oral pathologies (the latter will also be used for diet comparisons). These data will be combined with bone proteomics and aDNA analyses. Markers of activity and mobility will be studied using cross-sectional geometric properties obtained from CT scans, as well as entheseal changes. The origin of the Mesolithic people will be studied using ancient DNA analysis, strontium, oxygen and sulphur isotopes and non-metric skeletal and dental traits.

Ellen Späth by M. Rivollat

Ancient DNA Analysis

Although Belgium is famous for having provided DNA from Neandertal specimens, as well as modern humans from the Aurignacian and Magdalenian periods, the area is a totally unexplored region for the Mesolithic period.

The objectives of the aDNA panel within the ROAM project are to document the intra- and interpopulation variation within the region, for a two-scale approach. On one hand, we will characterize the genetic diversity of the hunter-gatherer groups populating the Belgian caves ~10000 years ago. We will explore their genetic history and disentangle the demographic processes that shaped their genetic signature. We will determine their relationship with other prehistoric European populations. These data might also help to understand better the posterior event of admixture with incoming Neolithic populations millennium later that are carrying some portion of hunter-gatherer ancestry.

On the other hand, we will explore the genetic structure at the group level, to shed light on the funerary practices and potentially on the social behaviour that led to such a diversity.

As parallel objectives, we will also look for specific DNA from other organisms present in our samples, such as pathogens, that might shed light on the health condition of these hunter-gatherer groups.

Overall, these results will be combined with those from the other work packages to gain a better understanding of who were the last hunter-gatherers who populated modern Belgium.


The cleanroom analysis to extract the DNA and build the libraries will take place at Durham University in the lab of Eva Fernández Domínguez in the Department of Archaeology.

The deep sequencing and in-solution capture will take place at NXTGNT, Gent, Belgium, with Filip Van Nieuwerburgh’s team.

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