Using DNA to work out what 6th century Chinese emperor looked like

Researchers have reconstructed the face of Chinese Emperor Wu of Northern Zhou who lived 1,500 years ago.

Deep DNA analysis of single nucleotide polymorphisms, frequently called SNPs (pronounced “snips”), are the most common type of genetic variation among people and analysing them unlocked the facial features of Wu.  The study is published in the journal Current Biology.

Wu ruled the Northern Zhou dynasty from 560 to 578 CE. Under his reign, a strong military was built, and the northern part of China was unified after Wu’s army defeated the Northern Qi dynasty.

China dynasties map northern zhou territories in light blue
Territories of China in 560 CE. Credit: Ian Kiu via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0).

The Northern Zhou dynasty lasted from 557–581 CE. It was replaced by the Sui dynasty which would eventually reunify China.

Wu’s rule was cut short when he died at 36 years old. Apart from giving us a glimpse at this ancient Chinese ruler, the research also suggests that Wu may have died from a stroke. His tomb was found in northwestern China in 1996.

Emperor Wu was ethnically Xianbei. These were a nomadic people who lived in what is today Mongolia and northern and northeastern China.

“Some scholars said the Xianbei had ‘exotic’ looks, such as thick beard, high nose bridge, and yellow hair,” says corresponding author Shaoqing Wen, from Fudan University in Shanghai. “Our analysis shows Emperor Wu had typical east or northeast Asian facial characteristics.”

The team was able to recover more than 1 million single-nucleotide polymorphyisms  (SNPs) on his DNA. SNPs are variations at single positions in a DNA sequence in an individual. By studying these single-letter (DNA is coded by the letters A, C, G and T corresponding to different molecules) changes, geneticists can determine different traits of individuals.

In this case, the researchers were able to find information about Wu’s skin and hair, and combine that information with his skull to reconstruct the ancient emperor’s face.

“Our work brought historical figures to life,” says corresponding author Pianpian Wei, also at Fudan University. “Previously, people had to rely on historical records or murals to picture what ancient people looked like. We are able to reveal the appearance of the Xianbei people directly.”

Some archaeologists argue Wu died of illness, others that he was poisoned.

The analysis found genetic evidence that Wu was at heightened risk of stroke, and the authors say it might suggest this contributed to his death.Historical records say the emperor had aphasia (a language disorder), drooping eyelids and an abnormal gait – potential symptoms of a stroke.

The analysis also reveals that Xianbei people mixed with ethnically Han Chinese when they migrated south into northern China.

“This is an important piece of information for understanding how ancient people spread in Eurasia and how they integrated with local people,” Wen says.

The team plan to use the genetic analysis methods to study the people who lived in the ancient city of northwest China, Chang’an. The settlement was the capital of many Chinese emperors over thousands of years and the western endpoint of the Silk Road. They hope future studies will reveal more information about how people migrated and exchanged cultures in ancient China.

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