Wellcome Trust Palaeogenomics & Bio-Archaeology Research Network

The Palaeo-BARN is the home of ancient DNA research at Oxford University.

Our modus operandi involves combining the resolution afforded by DNA sequences and fine-scale morphological variation with the time depth of archaeology and palaeontology.

Doing so allows us to establish the patterns of DNA and morphological variance through time and space. We then take advantage of a range of bioinformatic approaches to answer long-standing questions related to how, when, and where evolutionary processes (including domestication) took place that have led to the creation of the modern world.
Visit the Palaeo-BARN Web Site  (linked to PalaeoBARN.com)
We are currently actively engaged in three large projects supported by separate funding bodies.

1. Unifying Domestication and Evolutionary Biology through Ancient DNA (UNDEAD)

2014 - 2019
Funding: European Research Council (ERC-2013-StG 337574-UNDEAD)

This project takes advantage of revolutionary genetic technologies to characterise the nuclear genomes from ancient animal remains. By combining the resolution of thousands of DNA markers with the time depth of archaeology, this project aims to fulfill the potential of DNA to address fundamental questions regarding domestication. More specifically, we will address key unanswered questions regarding the spatiotemporal pattern and processes of animal domestication including: 1) where and how many times did early animal domestication take place, and 2) when did the mutations that are known to differentiate modern domestic and wild individuals first appear, and how often were similar genes selected for across species?

The ability to directly observe genetic variability and quantify admixture in ancient animal remains will means we can expand the potential of how domestic animals can be used to address archaeological questions including: To what degree did domestic animals hybridise with regional wild and domestic populations, what is the legacy of that admixture in modern populations, and 2) do the combined datasets support similar patterns of 
human migration across the Old World?

Each of these of these questions will be addressed by typing nuclear variation in three primary species: Dogs, the earliest animal domesticate and the only animal domesticated prior to the advent of agriculture, Pigs, one of the earliest farm animals likely domesticated independently in the Near East and East Asia, and Chickens, the first domesticated bird and now ubiquitous across the Old and New Worlds.

2. Deciphering dog domestication through a combined ancient DNA and geometric morphometric approach

2013 - 2016
Funding: Natural Environment Research Council, UK (NE/K005243/1 and NE/K003259/1)

Research into early animal domestication has now broadly established the geographic and temporal origins of the major livestock species. Dogs remain an enigma, however, not only because they were the first domestic animal and the only domesticate whose appearance precedes the emergence of settled agriculture, but also because decades of archaeological and genetic research have failed to reveal where and how many times dogs were domesticated. Establishing the origins of dogs is critical given their standing as the first domesticate. Because neither traditional zooarchaeological nor modern genetic approaches have been able to resolve where and how many times dogs were domesticated, we will combine ancient DNA (aDNA) and geometric morphometric (GM) techniques to archaeological canid remains.

The primary aim of this proposal is therefore to directly address where, when, and how many times dogs were domesticated. In order to do so, we will characterise and track fine-scale genetic and morphometric variation in wolves and dogs through space and time thus allowing us to determine whether dogs were domesticated just once in a single location or multiple (independent) times across Eurasia.

3. Cultural and Scientific Perceptions of Human-Chicken Interactions

2014 - 2017
Funding: Arts and Humanities Research Council (AH/L006979/1)

This project explores the history of chickens, the world’s most widespread and abundant domestic animal. By integrating the research interests and expertise of scientists with those of scholars in the arts and humanities, we will investigate the origins and dispersal of domestic chickens and their role in human culture in the past, present, and future. Our trans-disciplinary research team will integrate the results of a wide range of methods to develop a unique and comprehensive understanding of the complex and varied relationships between humans and chickens.

More specifically, this project will demonstrate how scientific approaches can make significant contributions to answering research questions often perceived to lie principally in the domain of the humanities. For instance, questions about human ritual and status can benefit from the resolution provided by isotopic and DNA results that can yield significant insights into the morphological characteristics and geographic origins of chicken remains, thus providing significant new information that can be compared with anthropological knowledge. Equally, this project will show the necessity of having a historical and human context for interpreting scientific results. By collaborating closely to study the role of chickens in human societies, from their domestication to the present and beyond, this project will enable scientists and humanities researchers to adapt and enhance their research methods to meet the challenges set by each other.