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Today’s East Asians are very genetically similar to their ancient ancestors

This tells us more about ancient culture

Processing samples with a micro sandblaster at the cleanroom of the ancient DNA laboratory at UCD, Dublin, Ireland.
Dr. Francesca Cardilio, UCD, Dublin, Ireland

For the first time, scientists have been able to extract DNA from ancient East Asian bones and compare it to the DNA of the people there today. It turns out that modern East Asians, unlike Europeans, are very genetically similar to their ancestors — and this information tells us more about the origins of farming and how populations migrated or stayed put.

About 40 years ago, the Soviets excavated the 7,700-year-old remains of two women — one in her 20s, one in her 50s — from a cave in the Amur Basin, an area near the border of Russia and northern China. Now, a team of researchers from Russia, South Korea, and the United Kingdom has extracted and sequenced the genetic data from those Stone Age bones. The results, published today in the journal Science Advances, show that these women’s DNA is roughly 65 percent similar to that of the Ulchi people, who live in the Amur Basin today. Importantly, they’re also pretty genetically similar to today’s Japanese and Koreans, who live further south. That tells us that there likely weren’t any big Asian migrations in at least the last 7,000 years.

Moving around and spreading ideas is one way innovation can happen, says lead author Veronika Siska, a zoology researcher at the University of Cambridge. That’s what seems to have taken place in Europe. Genetically, modern Europeans are anywhere from a 20 to 60 percent match with their ancestors. This means their ancestors moved around a lot, and many of their innovations happened because of migration. For example, previous research suggested that farming came to Europe when hunter-gatherers brought it from the Near East, or places like modern-day Turkey and Egypt.

Not so with Asians. The genetic match between modern and ancient Asians suggests that the Asian ancestors stayed put. (It’s possible that they didn’t move around more because East Asia is so big and has such a varied geography.) That could mean that farming, for example, developed there independently of how it developed in other places in the world. “This [paper] increases our knowledge of what happened in Asia — and contrary to what happens in Europe, the switch to farming was not accompanied by population movement,” says Federico Sanchez Quinto, a geneticist at Uppsala University in Sweden, who was not involved in the study.

The study has some limitations — the quality of the genetic data wasn’t great because the bones were so old, according to Siska. That’s a common problem with skeletal remains in the region: warm weather in Asia isn’t good for preserving bones, which makes it harder to extract high-quality DNA. But the study is exciting because sequencing from the full nuclear genome of mainland East Asian remains had not been done before

The next step is to try extracting more data from these bones, or others, to answer more detailed questions. For example, Siska’s team is interested in investigating a theory about the evolution of modern Japanese people. The so-called dual-origin theory says that modern Japanese — and to a lesser extent Koreans, who are quite genetically similar — are descended from both the indigenous island population and hunter-gatherers who came from southern China. More genetic info from Asian bones could help confirm this theory and give us even more insight into these ancient populations.