The special conditions of preservation that exist in the Hallstatt salt mine bring up the question of whether a DNA analysis could in some cases provide further interesting information on the history of Hallstatt. What finds would theoretically be suited?
Identification of animal species through DNA
Gender identification through DNA
Initial results at the NHM
Although some animal furs and pelts still display their original colour, it is not always possible to determine the species. In such cases, DNA analysis might be helpful and enlarge the picture we have of the use of individual animal species in Hallstatt 3000 years ago. The codified genetic information in the DNA is species-specific, that is to say the sequence of the components in the DNA molecule makes it possible to determine unambiguously the animal species the sample (e.g. a piece of leather) comes from. Often very short DNA fragments are sufficient for this purpose.
The history of mining suggests that women and children worked in the salt mine. While a DNA analysis does not give information on the age of a person, it makes it possible to determine the sex. The mine has yielded two suitable materials: excrement, containing DNA in the form of intestinal epithelium cells, and remains of human skin that stick to hand-protecting leathers and tool handles, mixed with sweat and dirt. In both cases one has to be aware that the samples may contain a mixture DNA from different individuals.
Today, DNA reading is routine in molecular genetic laboratories, as it is in the Molecular Systematics Laboratory at the Natural History Museum, Vienna. However, the analysis of historic and even prehistoric material is always particularly challenging. We assume that the conditions in the mine, that is to say preservation by salt and permanent cool temperatures, had a favourable effect on the state of preservation of the DNA, but since we have no experience in this respect, the results will at any rate be most exciting. We have already scored a success, with a palm protector unambiguously identified as cow leather through DNA comparison.
(Haring, E. Kruckenhauser, L.)