Dating the bones of the past has become a crucial part of understanding where humanity has gone before, and the legacy of the past.

Radiocarbon dating, using microscopic measurements of the isotope Carbon-14, has been held up as one of the best standards, but it has also proven to be inaccurate, depending on the metrics used, as recently reported by Laboratory Equipment.

Now a European team is proposing a new way of dating the bones of our ancestors: by measuring the frequency of mutations from the genetic evidence.

The team, led by a pair from the University of Sheffield, presented their findings at the European Society of Human Genetics conference this week, and also in a recent paper on the BioRxiv pre-print server.

“Given the rapid increase in the number of ancient skeletons with published DNA, we believe that our technique will be useful to develop alternative hypotheses,” Umberto Esposito, postdoctoral researcher at Sheffield, working in the laboratory of Eran Elhaik, said.

The pre-print paper shows that the team developed a database of 21 populations from Europe and the Middle East and Northern Eurasia that included 302 ancient full genomes, and approximately 150,000 autosomal SNPs from the DNA.

The researchers focused in on the ancient ancestry informative markers, or aAIMs. Using principal component analysis, or PCA, through two existing algorithms (known as Infocalc and Wright’s Fst) they found that these markers and their rates of appearance could be a sort of clock.

“AIM panels can delineates population structure in a cost-effective manner by identifying population-specific markers, which in turn help in detecting and correcting for variation in individual ancestry that can confound methods like admixture mapping, Mendelian Randomization trials, association, studies and forensics by increasing falser positive results and/or reducing Power,” the scientists wrote.

The team’s results: the average difference between radiocarbon dating and the DNA models for samples stretching back 45,000 years was 800 years, according to the conference presentation.

“This permits us to open a powerful window on our past,” Esposito said. “The study of genetic data allows us to uncover long-lasting questions about migrations and population mixing in the past.”

The conference touted the results as one of the marquee presentations.

“This study shows how DNA derived from ancient skeletons can be used to more accurately determine the age of the skeleton than traditional radiocarbon tracking methods,” Joris Veltman, of Newcastle University, current chair of the ESHG conference, said.