Ritual complexity in a past community revealed by ancient DNA analysis of pre-colonial terracotta items from Northern Ghana

Publication date: March 2017Source:Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 79
Author(s): Heather A. Robinson, Timothy Insoll, Benjamin W. Kankpeyeng, Keri A. Brown, Terence A. Brown
The pre-colonial 6th–14th century terracotta forms of Koma Land, Northern Ghana, contain cavities which may have been intended to hold liquids. These have been linked to traditional African libation, but the specific nature of their contents is unclear. We used generic polymerase chain reactions that would amplify DNA from a range of plant and fungal species in order to identify remains of libations applied to fourteen terracotta items. We anticipated difficulties in distinguishing genuine ancient DNA sequences from those resulting from contaminating material, and therefore also carried out a series of control experiments to assess the extent to which the samples had become contaminated with exogenous DNA during burial, excavation and downstream analysis. Taking account of the results of the control experiments, as well as the difficulties in assigning matches between ancient DNA sequences and database entries, we provide evidence for the use of three different types of plant – plantain/banana, pine and grasses – in libations associated with the terracotta items. We also identified DNA from Coniochaeta yeast within the mouth cavity of one figurine, suggesting that this structure was burnt prior to deposition.