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The Molecule Hunt: Archaeology and the Search for Ancient DNA    by Martin Jones order for
Molecule Hunt
by Martin Jones
Order:  USA  Can
Arcade, 2003 (2002)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* *   Reviewed by G. Hall

It is hard to read a newpaper or newsmagazine or see a Nova, National Geographic or Discover television program these days without seeing articles on new advances in many fields due to the rapidly increasing knowledge of DNA. In The Molecule Hunt, Cambridge professor of archaeological science Martin Jones describes how this is being applied to archaeology. His target is the educated layperson, with an interest in both archaeology and evolution, who wants to know how DNA studies can be used to decipher the 'fading signatures of lost worlds'. It is an excellent opportunity for those who want to learn more about the background and key figures in this work.

Jones gives a brief history of DNA studies from the 1950s when its structure was determined to the present. He also includes just enough technical information on DNA science to whet the appetite. For those who want to delve further there is a detailed bibliography. Once the reader is up to speed, Jones discusses some of the key issues in archaeology and anthropology and shows how the new DNA techniques can shed a more precise light on them. These include questions on past population movements such as 'Out of Africa', i.e. when and where modern humans first evolved and spread around the world, the concept of race, and the rise of agriculture; again where and when. Earlier more traditional archaeological studies have given some answers to these questions, but DNA supplements these to provide a 'gene map to prehistory'. In many cases the answers are not as simple and monolithic as earlier data indicated, and often show a 'complex interweaving of social networks' which affects everything.

One of the more interesting aspects of the book is how DNA can be used to look at past events on many different timescales. Depending on what part of the DNA molecule is investigated, it can be a 'stopwatch, clock or calendar' and therefore cover from relatively recent times back to the far distant past. For example DNA studies of the bodies found in a Russian grave prove to be those of the Romanov family, the last royal rulers murdered by the Bolsheviks in the early 1900s. In the much more distant past it can show how Neanderthals are related to us and whether they are just our robust and hairy cousins or a completely different group. In case anyone thinks this information is nice to know but not that useful, the chapter on ancient diseases shows how it is very relevant to modern science. Knowledge about when and where scourges like AIDS started and evolved is unfortunately of utmost importance today as we try develop strategies to combat them.

Anyone interested in archaeology and/or DNA studies will enjoy this book. There is enough science so that the book will satisfy those who want to recognize some of the terms and have a general understanding of the scientific techniques. The archaeological background is also handled nicely. All in all, The Molecule Hunt is well worth the read.

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