Young Ukee scientist gets into world’s oldest DNA

“Who are we, where did we come from, and what does it mean to be us?” These are questions that fascinate many of us, if we pause to think about them, but for

Rhy McMillan, they have taken him on a serendipitous journey in education and research and to the depths of a world famous cave in Belgium.

It all began on a blustery December day in 2009, as McMillan leaned on his surfboard, watching waves crest on Long Beach near his home in Ucluelet, BC.

Returned home from a year of touring playing his music, he’d decided it was time for a new direction in life. Answering his cell phone, he got the news he’d been accepted to study for his Bachelor of Arts degree at

VIU. He packed and moved to Nanaimo the same day.

Within the first hour of Anthropology 111 – one of the few last-minute classes he could register for, Professor DeeCullon had McMillan thinking critically about who we are

Cullon had McMillan thinking critically about who we are as humans, inspiring him to begin his academic journey.

“Ever since then, thanks to Dee, it was something I knew I wanted to do – to find out more about what it means to be human,” he says.

McMillan has since immersed himself in archaeology and geoscience. Graduating at VIU in January with a BA in Anthropology and Earth Science, McMillan is entering UBC’s Master of Science in Geologic Science program this fall where he continues the work he began as a VIU undergrad in Scladina Cave in Belgium. He plans to follow up with a doctoral degree.

The site of the discovery of some of the world’s oldest Neanderthal

DNA on record -approximately 100,000 years old – Scladina Cave opened a world of opportunity for McMillan.

Designated an honourary research associate at the Centre archéologique de la grotte Scladina (ASBL Andennaise), he is involved in editing and translation, as well as writing for the Scladina Monograph, an academic publication chronicling the discovery of an 8-year-old Neanderthal child at the site.

“Scladina is a time capsule, a beautiful little well-protected site,” he said. “It has contents that have been dated to about 130,000 years – with undated materials likely much older -and was completely filled up within the last 10,000 years. This means everything

inside has been protected since before modern times – nobody was able to access it until scientific excavation began in 1978. And we haven’t excavated to the end of the cave yet – we don’t know exactly where it goes. For me, that’s the most beautiful part.”

McMillan is now focusing on taphonomy – the study of the processes affecting an organism between the time of its death and the time we find it in the archaeological/geological record.

A top concern is the differential fossilization of bone, and the development of a new standard for chemically analyzing bone.

“One of my main objectives is to help archaeologists better understand, describe, and explain the relationships between groups of valuable objects by using geoscience,” McMillan said. “This means understanding, through a method I’m helping to develop, the objects’ various states of preservation

and alteration, and using this data to help us better understand how they are related.”

Working with the new method he’s developing for analyzing tiny samples of fossilized bone at the UBC Pacific Centre for Isotopic and Geochemical Research, McMillan is solving a problem that occurs when objects are redeposited and mixed into overlying sediments by erosion, causing a mélange of objects representing different time periods. Objects found together in one layer of sediment might have been deposited during different events – and objects found in separate contexts might have been originally deposited by the same event, even though they are not excavated from the same layer.

One particular find at Scladina that has involved McMillan is the discovery of a brittle, graphite substance that may well be evidence of a colorant – or a very early pencil – used by Neanderthals. “Not only is the use of graphite as a colorant by Neandertals new and exciting, these could be the first pencils ever used,” he said.

The initial encouragement to undertake the VIU Study Abroad

trip to Scladina came from mentor Professor Cheryl Roy. With Roy now poised to retire from her position leading student research at Scladina, her former student is now preparing to take over that role.

Roy is happy to see one of her most promising students continuing his research and sharing his skills with future VIU students working at the cave.

“Rhy is one of the most enthusiastic students I have ever encountered,” Roy says. “He is excited about learning and he has used every opportunity offered to him to create his own future.”

Working with UBC’s Multidisciplinary Applied Geochemistry Network, McMillan is excited about continuing his research -and the impact it could have on other sites.

“The bottom line is, most of the time information we use as archaeologists comes from studying objects that have undergone at least some degree of taphonomic alteration – the processes that occur after an organism dies and before we find it,” he said. “I don’t think we understand and use the taphonomic information that is available to the degree that we should when analyzing archaeological bone.”

McMillan believes there is much to be learned from advancing the relationship between archaeology and geology, and he plans to be part of doing just that.

Shari Roy writes for Vancouver Island University.