DNA in rock art

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TRACCE no. 9 – by Joachim Burger & Birgit Grosskopf

2nd International Congress of Rupestrian Archaeology
2-5 October 1997 DARFO BOARIO TERME
Rock art pigments usually contain naturally occurring iron and manganese oxides and hydroxides. Additionally, organic binders/vehicles can be used, such as: animal fats, plantal juices, bone marrow, blood, eggs, urine, and milk. All of these substances contain among other things the DNA of their organism of origin

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Under favourable environmental conditions (dryness, low temperature, etc.) DNA can be preserved for thousands of years. However, after a long period of time DNA will degrade to not more than a couple of hundreds of basepairs. Nevertheless, this can be sufficient for getting quite a lot of genetic information. Either with species-specific or with highly conserved primer-systems the species of origin of an organic component can be determined.

Picture at the surface of a Texas Pictograph

We investigated samples from the Pecos River Stile pictographs (Texas/USA). The rock art samples revealed reproducible plant and bovine signals. The REM- analysis from the surface of the rock art sample shows some plant- and animal-like structures, which obviously do not belong to the original pigment but seem to have been layered upon it at a later point of time. Thus, the DNA-results have to be interpreted cautiously.

Joachim Burger & Birgit Grosskopf
Institut of Anthropology,
Bürgerstrasse 50, 37 0 73 Göttingen,


  • Burger J. – Hummel S. – Herrmann B., 1997.Nachweis von DNA-Einzelkopiesequenzen aus prähistorischen Zähnen. Liegemilieu als Faktor für den Erhalt von DNA, “Anthrop. Anz.” 55, 2: 193-198
  • Grosskopf B. – Burger J., 1997.Applications of DNA analysis in archaeometry. In: Herrmann, B, Hummel, S.: Ancient DNA IV. Conference 1997, Göttingen: 29
  • Hummel S. – Burger J.-Rameckers J.-Lassen C.-Schmerer W.-Herrmann B., 1996. Improvement of short tandem repeat amplifications of highly degraded DNA, “Amplifications”, 1, 14: 5-6
  • Hummel S. – Burger J. – Rameckers J. – Lassen C. – Schultes T. – Herrmann B., 1996. DNA typing of highly degraded DNA by multiplex PCR, “Amplifications” 1, 14: 7+20
  • Reese R. L. – Hyman M. – Rowe M. W. – Derr J. N. – Davis S. K., 1996. Ancient DNA from Texas Pictographs, “Journal of Archaeological Science”, 23: 269-277.


TRACCE no. n.10special issue for RA Congress 1997Back to Index

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