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9 February 2017
DNA reveals continuity between Stone Age and modern East Asians

Researchers working on ancient DNA from human remains buried almost 8,000 years ago in a cave known as Devil's Gate, in a mountainous area close to the far east coast of Russia facing northern Japan, found the genetic makeup of certain modern East Asian populations closely resembles that of their ancestors. Also found were hundreds of stone and bone tools, the carbonised wood of a former dwelling, and woven wild grass that is one of the earliest examples of a textile.
     Exceptional genetic proximity was found between the Ulchi people of the Amur Basin, near where Russia borders China and North Korea, and the ancient hunter-gatherers buried in the cave close to the Ulchi's native land. The Ulchi retained their hunter-fisher-gatherer lifestyle until recent times.
     This genetic continuity is in stark contrast to most of Western Europe, where sustained migrations of early farmers from the Levant overwhelmed hunter-gatherer populations, and were followed by a wave of horse riders from Central Asia during the Bronze Age.
     The study is the first to obtain nuclear genome data from ancient mainland East Asia and compare the results to modern populations. The findings indicate that there was no major migratory interruption, or population turnover for more than seven millennia. Researchers suggest the vast size of East Asia and dramatic variations in its climate may have prevented the influence of Neolithic migrations that replaced hunter-gatherers across much of Europe.
     The new study provides support for the dual origin theory of modern Japanese populations: that they descend from a combination of hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists that eventually brought wet rice farming from southern China. A similar pattern is also found in neighbouring Koreans, who are genetically very close to Japanese, however Manica says much more data from Neolithic China is required to pinpoint the origin of the agriculturalists involved in this mixture.
     While the Devil's Gate samples show high genetic affinity to the Ulchi - fishermen from the same area who speak the Tungusic language - they are also close to other Tungusic-speaking populations in present day China.
     Lead author Veronika Siska says: "These are ethnic groups with traditional societies and deep roots across eastern Russia and China, whose culture, language and populations are rapidly dwindling. Our work suggests that these groups form a strong genetic lineage descending directly from the early Neolithic hunter-gatherers who inhabited the same region thousands of years previously."

Edited from Popular Archaeology (1 February 2017)

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