East Asians descended from Stone Age residents

Two 7,700-year-old Stone Age East Asian skeletons are very similar genetically to modern populations in the area, according to DNA analyses.

The work, carried out by mathematical biologist Veronika Siska from Cambridge University in the UK and colleagues and published in Science Advances, suggests that the transition from hunter-gathering to farming took a very different – and much more peaceful – course to that in the better-studied regions of western Eurasia.

Heralding from Devil’s Gate – a Neolithic cave site on the border between Russia and Korea – the remains of a pair of Stone Age women enabled one of the first studies of the genetics in the region at the time.

Siska and colleagues sequenced DNA from mitochondria – the powerhouses of cells – of the pair, then compared the results to a large database of modern and ancient genomes.

They found that the genetic information from the Devil’s Gate samples was very similar to that obtained from modern-day individuals living in the same area, known as the Amur Basin.

Most similar was a population known as the Ulchi – traditional fishermen who speak one of the Tungusic languages endemic to eastern Siberia and north-east China.

“Other populations that show high affinity to Devil’s Gate are the Oroqen and the Hezhen – both of whom, like the Ulchi, are Tungusic speakers from the Amur Basin – as well as modern Koreans and Japanese,” the researchers report.

The finding suggests a strong continuity of genetic lineage in the region from the Neolithic to the present day.

This stands in sharp contrast to evidence from the sequencing of genomes to the west, which indicates that the Neolithic revolution was a far from peaceful process.

“Studies on south-east and central Europe indicate a major population replacement of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers by Neolithic farmers of a Near Eastern origin during the period,” the researchers write.

Siska and colleagues link their findings to archaeological research that indicates the shift from hunter-gatherer to farmer in East Asia was also very different in other ways. In Western Eurasia, pottery, farming and animal husbandry all developed pretty much simultaneously, between 7,000 and 8,000 years ago.

“In contrast, Early Neolithic societies in the Russian Far East, Japan, and Korea started to manufacture and use pottery and basketry 10.5 to 15 [thousand years ago], but domesticated crops and livestock arrived several millennia later,” they write.

Bastien Llamas, a palaeogeneticist from the University of Adelaide in Australia who was not involved in the research, comments that “the novelty is really the geographical location of the samples”, adding that “so far, ancient genetic [studies] were done on individuals living mostly in other places of the world”. 

Evolutionary biologist David Lambert from Griffith University in Australia, also not involved, notes that despite the fact that “the level of coverage that [the researchers] have of these genomes is very low … [but] this is a good beginning”.

Siska and her crew hope their results will encourage further research into the as yet little understood Neolithic heritage of East Asia.

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