Genetic analysis of a woman’s skull from 14,000 years ago found in south-west China suggests she was related to an ancient population that migrated to North America from east Asia
Ancient DNA from a 14,000-year-old skull found in south-west China reveals that the individual was a member of our species, Homo sapiens, and had genetic ties to the east Asian ancestors of Native Americans.
The cranium, which belonged to an individual known as Mengzi Ren, was unearthed in 1989 in Red Deer Cave in the Yunnan province of China. Since then, it has been debated whether the skull belonged to an archaic human, such as a Neanderthal or Denisovan, or a member of our species.
Now, Bing Su at the Kunming Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and his colleagues have established that Mengzi Ren was a female H. sapiens by analysing ancient DNA from the specimen. The team sequenced a fraction of the total genome, just 100 million DNA bases, but this was enough to establish the individual’s species-level identity.
“It was a really exciting moment,” says Su. “It is difficult to find ancient DNA in such a sample. After three years of trying to extract DNA from around 100 spots on the cranium, we found ancient DNA that we could sequence.”
By then comparing the genome of Mengzi Ren with ancient genomes from around the world, the team revealed genetic similarities between the individual and living people of east Asian ancestry, as well as Native American people. This suggests Mengzi Ren was related to ancient populations in east Asia that contributed to Native American ancestry.
The east Asian ancestry of Native Americans has previously been inferred by analysing the DNA of living people.
“This is the first time we have sequenced an ancient east Asian genome from the time when people were migrating into America, helping to confirm the east Asian ancestry of Native Americans,” says Su.
Based on this genetic analysis, the researchers speculate that some of these ancestors of Native Americans may have travelled north along the coastline of present-day eastern China, as well as through the Japanese islands, before crossing into America from Siberia.
“This work is very exciting, as it shows how the settlement of east Asia is linked to the peopling of America,” says Tábita Hünemeier at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology, Spain.
She adds that there is also evidence that some members of the founding population that entered the Americas dispersed westwards back into east Asia. “This could be [another] explanation for the presence of a relationship between Mengzi Ren’s ancestry and ancient Native Americans,” she says.
Journal reference: Current Biology, DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2022.06.016
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