The use of ancient DNA (aDNA) in the reconstruction of population origins and evolution is becoming increasingly common. The resultant increase in number of samples and polymorphic sites assayed and the number of studies published may give the impression that all technological hurdles associated with aDNA technology have been overcome. However, analysis of aDNA is still plagued by two issues that emerged at the advent of aDNA technology, namely the inability to amplify a significant number of samples and the contamination of samples with modern DNA. Herein, we analyze five well-preserved skeletal specimens from the western United States dating from 800–1600 A.D. These specimens yielded DNA samples with levels of contamination ranging from 0–100%, as determined by the presence or absence of New World-specific mitochondrial markers. All samples were analyzed by a variety of protocols intended to assay genetic variability and detect contamination, including amplification of variously sized DNA targets, direct DNA sequence analysis of amplification products and sequence analysis of cloned amplification products, analysis of restriction fragment length polymorphisms, quantitation of target DNA, amino acid racemization, and amino acid quantitation. Only the determination of DNA sequence from a cloned amplification product clearly revealed the presence of both ancient DNA and contaminating DNA in the same extract.
Our results demonstrate that the analysis of aDNA is still an excruciatingly slow and meticulous process. All experiments, including stringent quality and contamination controls, must be performed in an environment as free as possible of potential sources of contaminating DNA, including modern DNA extracts. Careful selection of polymorphic markers capable of discriminating between ancient DNA and probable DNA contaminants is critical. Research strategies must be designed with a goal of identifying all DNA contaminants in order to differentiate convincingly between contamination and endogenous DNA. Am J Phys Anthropol 111:5–23, 2000. © 2000 Wiley-Liss, Inc.