© K. Douka,  T. Higham, E. Mastora

ZooMS: Collagen peptide sequencing

Searching for ancient human remains using ZooMS

 ZooMS refers to 'Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry", the use of soft-ionization mass spectrometry for the species identification of fragmented archaeological specimens that are not morphologically identifiable.

The advantages of ZooMS over ancient DNA methods of species identification, is that ZooMS can be very high-throughput, producing results for thousands of specimens within 24 hours and at much lower costs. Because these methods use proteins, particularly collagen, which is much more stable than ancient DNA, they can be applied to the analysis of much older materials (>1 million years old in some cases) as well as those from much warmer climates spanning a substantial part of human evolution.


When used in conjunction, ZooMS, aDNA analyses and direct radiocarbon dating of bone can be a powerful tool in the retrieval of ancient genomic and phylogenetic data.  In the case of human remains, the presence of such fragments at an archaeological bone assemblage can be screened quickly. 

In addition to the presence of human fragments, with ZooMS we can assess the variety of animal species present in the assemblage and therefore retrieve important information on biodiversity during the Pleistocene at the sites under investigation.

We used ZooMS to find a Neanderthal bone in archaeological bone remains from the Denisova Cave site (Brown et al., 2016) in 2015. The first bone we found turned out to be a Neanderthal-Denisovan first generation offspring (see Slon et al., 2018).

We wrote a popular article about this in December 2018 called Needle in the Haystack, in Scientific American.

We are now looking at other sites to find more hominin remains. In our forthcoming article on Denisova Cave in the journal Nature, we will publish several more hominin bones from the site.

The ZooMS work in PalaeoChron is undertaken in collaboration Dr Mike Buckley of Manchester University and Dr Katerina Douka and Ms Samantha Brown of the MPI-SHH in Jena, Germany. We also have a ZooMS prep lab set up in Oxford in the RLAHA.