A New Legacy:  Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry to Explore Potential of Legacy Collections in Natural History Museums

June 03, 2024

A recent study revisits 19th-century museum collection to test the utility of ZooMS proteomic techniques to taxonomically identify bone fragments and ultimately provide new insights into human-animal interactions trough time

Legacy collections of Late Pleistocene fauna recovered from excavations of archaeological and fossil sites from the past are currently housed in museums and other repositories around the world. But because of their usual fragmentary nature, little has been done to explore their potential use to answer questions relating to past biodiversity or human behavior. The application of recently developed  biomolecular tools, like Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry (ZooMS), could provide new insights into these collections, for instance allowing new investigations into local and regional links between climate, environment, human behavior and megafaunal composition, and possibly offering new perspectives on past biodiversity change and the causes and consequences of megafaunal extinction.

In a recently published pilot study, we explored the utility of ZooMS to study legacy collections housed at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s (NMNH) Departments of Anthropology and Paleobiology. These departments curate materials from several important North American archaeological and paleontological sites, as well as a broad range of palaeobiological reference specimens.

The pilot study has revealed remarkable collagen preservation in fragmented assemblages recovered from Late Quaternary/Paleoindian sites housed at the NMNH, demonstrating the rich potential of ZooMS for examining legacy collections of megafauna. Through successful ZooMS screening, the researchers were able to both evaluate the molecular preservation of the materials and obtain valuable taxonomic information from 80% of the analyzed samples, previously unidentified bone fragments of extinct mammalian taxa, highlighting a continuity between ZooMS identifications and previous morphological assessments.

Future large scale applications of ZooMS to other legacy collections maintained not only in NHNM but also in other institutions, would not only provide new use to these collections but ultimately contribute to the discussion on the roles human played, as most of the materials are from archaeological sites, on megafauna extinction.

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