Taking archeology a step beyond traditional pottery shards, Brian Kemp analyzes ancient DNA (aDNA) from bones, teeth, and desiccated feces (coprolites) to help bring prehistoric Native American cultures alive in ways never before possible. As a molecular anthropologist, Kemp compares archeological findings with genetic information to detect past demographic shifts, population interactions, and movements throughout the Americas.

By plotting aDNA together with artifacts in the ground, specific tribes in the Southwest can be seen to virtually travel across the high desert through the eons. The picture Kemp paints seems so real that one can almost hear the hunter-gatherer songs and shouts drifting in the air.

Reconstructing the initial migration of humans into the Americas and unraveling their ensuing 15,000 years of prehistory is Kemp’s primary focus. His research also reveals direct connections between these ancient cultures and modern populations living in the Southwest today. Through the study of ancient trash piles—or middens—Kemp has discovered the earliest evidence of turkey domestication and other ways that early humans influenced the current genetic composition of animal species. Studying the genetics of ancient fur seals in Alaska, for example, enables Kemp to reconstruct portions of human behavior that would not be available otherwise.

For all of its potential, aDNA is notoriously difficult to retrieve and identify. Through their daily research challenges, Kemp and his team have discovered novel ways to remove contamination and improve the recovery of genetic data from ancient remains. Their findings have a direct impact on the forensic sciences, helping to create better methods for identifying crime victims and, in many cases, connecting people with their loved ones.

On the web

Kemp Lab of Molecular Anthropology and Ancient DNA

Talking Turkey (WSM, Winter 2009)