Old books were written on vellum which is treated animal skin. As the article says “Every one of these books is a herd of animals.” Researchers have learned to get DNA samples from 1,000 year old books by non-destructive method of analyzing eraser crumbs. And it’s just a plain, old, white Staedtler eraser, nothing fancy.
When Collins and postdoctoral researcher Sarah Fiddyment first approached archives to collaborate though, they made the mistake of thinking like archaeologists used to routinely pulverizing bone for DNA analysis. “They told us we would not be allowed to sample the parchments. Matthew and I didn’t think of it,” says Fiddyment. She ended up shadowing conservationists for several weeks and learned about their eraser technique. White plastic erasers made by Staedtler turned out to be perfect for cleaning manuscripts and for collecting DNA.
I think it’s crazy that from plain, old eraser crumbs we can learn the species, breed, gender and more of the animal that was the source of the vellum.
You can read the whole story on TheAtlantic.com.