DNA of centuries-old timber can reveal its origin
Oak wood was highly appreciated and widely used for construction in past centuries. As population sizes expanded in some regions of Europe, local forests were depleted of high‑quality timber. Therefore, regions of soaring economies were importing timber initially from the European market and eventually from other continents. Origin of archaeological or historical timber is usually identified by means of dendroprovenancing, i.e. statistical matching of tree‑ring‑width (TRW) series of timber of unknown origin with TRW reference datasets. However, this method has pitfalls and limitations and therefore alternative techniques are needed. Here, we used three different DNA analysis methods to investigate the potential of using ancient (a)DNA, extracted from oak timber derived from historical buildings and shipwrecks from a variety of countries. All the material had also been analysed dendrochronologically, so its dating and provenance is demonstrated. We included heartwood samples in this analysis, for which DNA extraction is especially challenging as it contains chemicals that inhibit DNA amplification. We succeeded in amplifying DNA for at least one marker from 56% of samples (including heartwood samples), yielding crucial information that allowed us to identify the potential source area of centuries old timber buildings in Latvia and Denmark and of 750‑year‑old shipwreck material from Germany. Our results prove the strong potential of DNA analyses for identifying timber origin to the regional scale, but by combining these with the dendrochronological results, we can control the exactitude of the aDNA approach and demonstrate a more nuanced examination of the timber sources for these historic structures.