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Special Topic: Ancient DNA - ARC00057H

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  • Department: Archaeology
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Nathan Wales
  • Credit value: 30 credits
  • Credit level: H
  • Academic year of delivery: 2022-23
    • See module specification for other years: 2021-22

Module summary

Fascinating ancient DNA discoveries appear in the news nearly every few weeks, with unexpected findings on prehistoric migrations, past kinship networks, and admixture with extinct hominins. This module will give you the tools to move beyond the media reports and evaluate the “palaeogenomic” literature for yourself. By discussing how researchers plan and undertake genetic studies, you will gain a new perspective on what could be done in the future, potentially helping shape this burgeoning line of study.

Students have commented the module gives an opportunity to discuss exciting new publications and develop their scientific fluency.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Autumn Term 2022-23

Module aims

Special Topics focus upon the archaeology of a well defined time, space or theme and the modules seek to allow students, in small groups, to focus upon primary source material and to apply to it the theoretical and thematic perspectives learned over your first and second years. The aim is to facilitate the acquisition of deeper knowledge of one aspect of the past than has been possible in more general courses.

Specifically this module aims:

  • To explain key methods utilised in the study of ancient DNA

  • To explore challenges of ancient DNA research, including DNA damage and contamination

  • To consider how these increasingly sophisticated methodologies can be integrated with other evidence to address major questions in archaeology

Module learning outcomes

By the end of the module, students will be able to:

  • demonstrate a broad and comparative knowledge of the use of DNA in bioarchaeology
  • be aware of the methods underpinning the rapid advances in ancient DNA analysis
  • critically discuss and assess the key stages in the development of the field, and the ways in which DNA-based methods can be used to explore archaeological questions, as well as the limitations of this approach
  • critically evaluate primary data and evidence
  • explore and aquire scientific literature using appropriate bibliographic sources
  • communicate an in-depth, logical and structured argument, supported by biomolecular and archaeological evidence

Module content

In order for everyone to be familiar with the terminology and common methodologies, we will start with a broad introduction to DNA and genetics. Once that foundation is established, we will evaluate an ancient DNA publication, revealing its strengths and weaknesses, and helping you understand how to identify the key findings of a study. We will then take a thematic approach focused on major ancient DNA research areas, including sex identification, kinship in cemeteries, human evolution, population migration, plant and animal domestication, and disease. For each topic, we will explore case studies, showing how different threads of the research have developed in recent years. Throughout the module we will discuss and debate the ethical implications of these diverse studies.


Task Length % of module mark
N/A 100

Special assessment rules



Task Length % of module mark
N/A 100

Module feedback

Formative: The marker will share written feedback with you in a timetabled one-to-one meeting and you will have the opportunity to ask further questions about how to improve your work before your summative assessment. If you are unable to attend the feedback session, your tutor will share the formative feedback with you digitally.

Summative: Written feedback sheets will be uploaded to your e:vision account (your personal University of York online services account) within 20 working days of the submission deadline, along with your overall mark for the module. If you have any questions about your mark and/or your written feedback, you will be able to sign up for office hours with the marker.

Indicative reading

Brown, T.A. & Brown, K. (2011) DNA. Biomolecular Archaeology, Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 9–37.

Bramanti, B. et al. (2009) Genetic Discontinuity Between Local Hunter-Gatherers and Central Europe’s First Farmers. Science 326: 137–140.

Detailed reading for the module will be available via YorkShare (the University's virtual learning environment). When you have enrolled on a module, you will be able to access the full reading list.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.