Accurate dating of ancient humans is essential for mapping how people migrated throughout world history.

The standard dating method since the 1950s has been radiocarbon dating. The method, based on the ratio between two different carbon isotopes, has revolutionized archaeology. However, the technology is not always completely reliable in terms of accuracy, making it difficult to map ancient peoples, how they moved and their relationships.

In a new study published in Cell Reports Methods, a research team has developed a dating method that could be of great interest to archaeologists and paleonomists.

“Unreliable dating is a major problem, leading to vague and contradictory results. Our method uses artificial intelligence to date genomes via their DNA with high precision, explains Eran Elhaik, researcher in molecular cell biology at Lund University.

Eran Elhaik (Photo: Inger Ekström)

The method is called Temporal Population Structure (TPS) and can be used to date genomes that are up to 10,000 years old. In the study, the research team analyzed around 5,000 human remains – from the late Mesolithic period (10,000-8,000 BC) to modern times. All the samples studied were dated with an accuracy rarely seen.

“We show that information about when people lived is encoded in genetic material. By figuring out how to interpret it and situate it in time, we managed to date it using AI,” explains Eran Elhaik.

The researchers do not expect TPS to eliminate radiocarbon dating but rather see the method as a complementary tool in the paleogeographic toolbox. The method can be used when there is uncertainty about a radiocarbon dating result. An example is the famous human skull from Zlatý kůň in today’s Czech Republic, which may be between 15,000 and 34,000 years old.

“Radiocarbon dating can be very unstable and depends on the quality of the material examined. Our method is DNA-based, which makes it very robust. Now we can seriously start tracing the origins of ancient peoples and mapping their migration routes,” concludes Eran Elhaik.

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