How Chemistry can Reveal the Secrets of Ancient Worlds

How Chemistry can Reveal the Secrets of Ancient Worlds: The day-to-day lives of prehistoric humans have been revealed following new research developed by chemists at the University of Bristol. The research, which combines archaeology with cutting-edge chemistry allowing scientists to reconstruct the past, will be presented at the Royal Society’s annual Summer Science Exhibition [30 June 2009].

Led by Professor Richard Evershed from the University’s School of Chemistry, the team has developed new methods of forensic-style chemistry enabling the extraction of chemical information from organic molecules that have been preserved in archaeological artefacts and geological deposits for hundreds, thousands or even millions of years. Using this information the team is able to unravel key aspects of the lives of ancient peoples, particularly their diet and agricultural practices.

Richard Evershed, Professor of Biogeochemistry at the University, said: ”While the archaeological record is extraordinarily incomplete, by combining molecular, isotopic and archaeological information we can build up pictures of how people lived in a way that was impossible until now. We use the latest analytical chemical techniques in a forensic approach because of the thousands of years that have passed since the evidence was left behind.”

The latest state-of-the-art analytical chemical techniques are required to reveal and identify the invisible ancient molecules ― ‘biomarkers’ ― which are then matched to modern reference materials. These molecular and isotopic ‘fingerprints’ can be used to trace human activities, adding important new pieces to the jigsaw puzzle of past life on Earth.

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