Hunting for DNA in Doggerland, an Ancient Land Beneath the North Sea
In 1931 a fishing boat trawling the North Sea hauled in a spear point along with its catch. The sharpened piece of antler with barbs carved into one sides was almost 14,000 years old—a remnant of a place called Doggerland, underwater since the end of an ice age raised sea levels.
Today, researchers are embarking on an ambitious project to fully explore Doggerland—using DNA, seafloor sediment, and survey data from oil and gas companies.
This kind of research used to seem impossible. Vincent Gaffney, an archaeologist at the University of Bradford, used to tell students it was a landscape researchers could do nothing with. But in 2001, he started to wonder if data from energy companies could make a map.
Archaeologists began looking at remote sensing data that these companies had gathered while seeking oil and gas. They had a 3D seismic dataset that shows distinct layers. “Imagine just cutting a nice big cake,” Gaffney says. “You can see the layers of sponge and cream—and of course on the bottom there’s oil in there somewhere.” The energy companies only care about the very bottom of the cake, but Gaffney and his colleagues focused on a layer closer to the frosting. Based on studies that had dated the sediment, they knew that between 30 and 50 meters under the sea floor lay the former surface of Doggerland.
Tracing this layer of sediment, the team mapped about 17,000 square miles of the drowned and buried country—an area, Gaffney says, “slightly larger than Holland.” In its topography they’ve found hills, coastlines, lakes and rivers. “But it’s a map without people at the moment, or animals or plants,” Gaffney says. That’s where the project’s next phase comes in.
The European Research Council recently awarded a team led by Gaffney a €2.5 million grant—about $2.6 million. Soon the scientists will head to sea. But they plan to do a lot more than just make maps. They’ll follow two of the country’s sunken river beds, taking core samples in search of pollen, fossils, insect remains, and other signs of life.
They’ll also hunt for ancient DNA. This technique is still new and somewhat controversial. In a paper in the journal Science last February, members of the same team described DNA they’d dug up at Bouldnor Cliff, a submerged site off the Isle of Wight. They found evidence of wheat from 8,000 years ago—about 2,000 years before farming arrived in mainland Britain. Other researchers argued that the wheat DNA must have been modern contamination.
In the Doggerland samples, the team will look for DNA from crops or even domestic animals like sheep and goats. Gaffney says the findings might help identify the best spots to search for human archaeology—evidence of cleared areas, burning, or environments that would have made ideal settlements.
The samples will cover about 5,000 years of Doggerland’s history, from around 10,000 BC until the sea swallowed it. During this time, humans were transitioning from hunting and gathering to farming, plant life was changing, and a warming climate was raising sea levels, pushing people to higher ground. Gaffney plans to include all of this in a dynamic map of Doggerland that covers not just space, but time. “You can see the North Sea as a time machine,” Gaffney says.
It’s an ambitious goal. Jim Leary, an archaeologist at the University of Reading and the author of a book on prehistoric sea level rise, says he wishes the group would focus more on improving the Doggerland map rather than the thorny challenges of ancient DNA and ecosystem modeling. He’s glad to see Doggerland getting attention, though. “It has been overlooked for far too long,” Leary says.
Gaffney team hopes reconstructing Doggerland will be a step toward understanding the story of the humans who lived here, and how they responded to a changing climate. Until recently, Gaffney says, no one had a landscape to place these people in. “It was just blank,” he says. “All the maps were blank.” Now, he’s finally getting a look at the terrain.