Scientists have discovered the DNA of extinct humans in material found in caves.

Genetic material from ancient people have been found in seven archaeological sites even though no actual human remains were found. It can be challenging for researchers to find skeletons or preserved remains but DNA testing has allowed them to find evidence of people in places where they have lived.

According to Science, scientists have been able to extract DNA from samples of sediment collected from caves where ancient artefacts have been discovered.

Antonio Rosas, a scientist who works at the Natural Science Museum in the Spanish capital Madrid, said: “This work represents an enormous scientific breakthrough. We can now tell which species of hominid occupied a cave and on which particular stratigraphic level, even when no bone or skeletal remains are present.”

Team also found evidence of extinct animals

As well as finding evidence of humans, researchers working at sites in France, Spain, Belgium, Croatia and Russia were able to find traces of DNA belonging to extinct animal species, including the cave bear, woolly mammoth, cave hyena and woolly rhinoceros. The samples dated from between 14,000 years ago up to 550,000 years ago.

Matthias Meyer, lead researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, said: “We know that several components of sediments can bind DNA. We therefore decided to investigate whether hominin DNA may survive in sediments at archaeological sites known to have been occupied by ancient hominins.”

Laboratory staff extracted fragments of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from the samples. Mitochondrial DNA is passed down unchanged from a mother to her children and allows people to trace their maternal family line through genetic testing.

Maternity tests can determine whether someone is a person’s biological mother in the same way as paternity tests can identify if someone is a father. They are often used in cases where a child has been brought up away from their biological family, for example in cases of adoption.