Inferring Past Environments from Ancient Epigenomes

Mol Biol Evol. 2017 Oct 1;34(10):2429-2438. doi: 10.1093/molbev/msx211.


Analyzing the conditions in which past individuals lived is key to understanding the environments and cultural transitions to which humans had to adapt. Here, we suggest a methodology to probe into past environments, using reconstructed premortem DNA methylation maps of ancient individuals. We review a large body of research showing that differential DNA methylation is associated with changes in various external and internal factors, and propose that loci whose DNA methylation level is environmentally responsive could serve as markers to infer about ancient daily life, diseases, nutrition, exposure to toxins, and more. We demonstrate this approach by showing that hunger-related DNA methylation changes are found in ancient hunter-gatherers. The strategy we present here opens a window to reconstruct previously inaccessible aspects of the lives of past individuals.

Keywords: DNA methylation; ancient DNA; ancient epigenetics; environmental epigenetics; environmental paleoepigenetics; paleoepigenetics.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • DNA / genetics
  • DNA Methylation / genetics
  • DNA Methylation / physiology
  • DNA, Ancient / analysis*
  • Environment
  • Epigenesis, Genetic / genetics
  • Epigenomics / methods*
  • Hominidae / genetics
  • Humans


  • DNA, Ancient
  • DNA