Utilisation of ancient DNA from charred seeds in studies of the phylogenetics and population genetics of cultivated plants.

Key points:

  • Refines the analytical methods for the investigation of ancient DNA from plant remains;
  • Explores the genetic composition of ancient cereals.

This project, in collaboration with the University of Manchester, Base of burnt basketseeks to develop analytical methods more appropriate for the investigation of DNA from ancient charred grain, which could allow the more widespread application of these techniques in archaeology.

Ancient DNA is very fragmented: rather than the immensely long molecules (tens of millions of nucleotides long) found in living cells, we are only able to isolate fragments of a hundred or less nucleotides (see graph). However, using modern molecular biology techniques, we have devised ways of reconstructing DNA sequences from these small fragments of ancient DNA.


We initially discovered that it is possible to obtain small traces of DNA from preserved wheat seeds, some of which date back to the earliest stages of agriculture. Using ‘next generation’ sequencing techniques, unique sequence reads have been retrieved which show similarity with modern-day plant genomes, confirming the presence of ancient DNA in charred plant remains. An example of our findings is that one Bronze Age wheat grain from Greece contains a gene thought to confer good bread-making quality. This was surprising because prehistoric wheats are not thought to make good bread. We also found that cultivated wheats are more genetically diverse than previously thought.

Funded by: NERC Standard Research Grantnerc-logo
Grant Period: 2003 - 2006
Grant Holder: Prof. G. Jones (Sheffield, Archaeology) and Prof. T.A. Brown (Manchester, Life Sciences)

Relevant publications

  • Bunning, S., Jones, G., Brown, T. 2012. Next generation sequencing of DNA in 3300-year-old charred cereal grains. Journal of Archaeological Science.
  • Brown, T., Allaby, R., Sallares, R., Jones, G. 1999. Ancient DNA in charred wheats: taxonomic identification of mixed and single grains. Ancient Biomolecules 2: 185-93.