For the first time, researchers have successfully sequenced the genome of an ancient human fossil from the Late Pleistocene in southern China. Data published on July 14 in the journal Current biologysuggests that the enigmatic hominid belonged to an extinct maternal lineage of modern humans that may have contributed to the origin of the Native Americans.
“The ancient DNA technique is a really powerful tool,” Su says. “This tells us quite definitely that the Red Deer Cave people were modern humans and not archaic species like Neanderthals or Denisovans, despite their unusual morphological features,” he says.
The researchers compared the genome of these fossils with those of people from all over the world. They found that the bones belonged to a person who was closely related to the East Asian roots of the Native Americans. Combined with previous research data, this discovery led the team to speculate that some southern East Asians traveled north along the coastline of present-day eastern China through Japan and reached Siberia tens of thousands of years ago. They then crossed the Bering Strait between the continents of Asia and North America and became the first people to arrive in the New World.
The path to this discovery began more than thirty years ago when a team of archaeologists in China unearthed a large set of bones at Maludun, or Red Deer Cave, in southern China’s Yunnan province. Carbon dating has shown that the fossils date back to the late Pleistocene around 14,000 years ago, when modern humans migrated to many parts of the world.
In the cave, the researchers recovered a hominin cranial cap with characteristics of both modern humans and archaic humans. For example, the shape of the skull resembled the skull of a Neanderthal, and his brain was smaller than that of modern humans. As a result, some anthropologists believed that the skull probably belonged to an unknown archaic human species that lived until recently, or a hybrid population of archaic and modern humans.
In 2018, in collaboration with Xueping Ji, an archaeologist at the Yunnan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, Bing Su of the Kunming Institute of Zoology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and colleagues successfully extracted ancient DNA from a skull. Genomic sequencing shows that the hominin belonged to an extinct maternal lineage of a group of modern humans whose surviving descendants are currently found in East Asia, the Indochinese peninsula and the islands of Southeast Asia.
The find also shows that in the late Pleistocene, hominins living in southern East Asia had a rich genetic and morphological diversity, the degree of which is higher than in the northern part of East Asia of the same period. This suggests that the early people who first arrived in East Asia first settled in the south before some moved north, Su says.
“This is important evidence for understanding early human migration,” he says.
The team then plans to sequence more ancient human DNA using fossils from southern East Asia, especially those that predate the inhabitants of Red Deer Cave.
“Such data will not only help us paint a more complete picture of how our ancestors migrated, but also provide important information about how people change their appearance to adapt to local conditions over time, such as changes in skin color in response to changes in in appearance. exposure to sunlight,” Su says.
Middle Pleistocene human skull shows variation and continuity in early Asian humans.
Bing Su, Late Pleistocene Human Genome from Southwest China, Current biology (2022). DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2022.06.016. www.cell.com/current-biology/f … 0960-9822(22)00928-9
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