CORVALLIS - The Center for the Study of the First Americans at Oregon State University has received a grant of $500,000 from The Bingham Trust to develop a new program in "molecular archaeology."

The program initially will focus on the recovery and analysis of ancient DNA, extracted from hair found in North American and Asian archaeological sites. The center has received national attention for its path-breaking work in hair recovery.

"Naturally shed human and animal hair is, perhaps, one of the most common and yet least understood artifacts that archaeologists encounter," said Robson Bonnichsen, director of the OSU center. "For decades, no one paid any attention to hair.

"We hope next to develop DNA profiles of human populations who lived at specific sites, during specific times, and in association with specific artifacts," Bonnichsen said. "Think of the possibilities: We may soon begin identifying groups of people who lived thousands of years ago, and then trace their evolution and migration patterns over time."

Already the OSU researchers have successfully extracted DNA from a mastodon bone thought to be in excess of 12,000 years old. The bone was recovered from a site in King's Valley, northwest of Corvallis.

Playing vital roles in the extraction efforts are Katharine Field, an assistant professor of microbiology, and Walter Ream, an associate professor of agricultural chemistry. Both OSU researchers specialize in DNA studies.

As part of the new program, OSU will begin a "hair reference collection" of modern and extinct species, and samples from archaeological sites. Critical research is under way to determine if ancient DNA can routinely be recovered from well-preserved ancient specimens.

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Rob Bonnichsen, 541-737-4596