Ancient genomes link subsistence change and human migration in northern China


Share post:

While recent advances in ancient DNA analysis have established the major patterns of prehistoric human migration in western Eurasia, the population history of eastern Eurasia remains little understood. Northern China is of particular importance, as it harboured two of the world’s earliest agricultural centres for millet farming: the Yellow and West Liao River basins. Both basins are famous for their rich archaeological cultures and their influence on nearby regions. However, little is known about their genetic interactions and how these affected the dispersal of millet farming over northern China and surrounding regions.

Ancient genomes link subsistence change and human migration in northern China
Human remains in house foundation F40 of the Haminmangha site
[Credit: Yonggang Zhu, School of Archaeology Jilin University]

To tackle these questions, a team of researchers from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (MPI SHH) in Germany collaborated with geneticist Prof. Dr. Yinqiu Cui and her team at the School of Life Sciences at Jilin University in China. With joint forces, they were able to sequence 55 genomes from across northern China dating between 7,500 and 1,700 years ago, covering the Yellow River, West Liao River and Amur River regions. Their results add to discussions concerning the relationship between genetic contacts and subsistence change while providing the first comprehensive genetic overview of northern China.

Correlated changes of genes and subsistence

The researchers find that, contrary to the strong genetic continuity in the Amur basin, genetic profiles in the West Liao River region substantially changed over time. Yellow River, however, showed a general genetic stability but received genetic contribution from populations related to present-day groups in southern China since the middle Neolithic.

Ancient genomes link subsistence change and human migration in northern China
Location of the 19 archaeological sites covering 55 ancient individuals in this study. Each symbol
corresponds to a site from a specific region [Credit: Ning et al., 2020]

“Although the genetic changes in each region differ in timing and intensity, each shift is correlated with changes in subsistence strategy,” says lead author Chao Ning of the MPI SHH’s eurasia3angle team. “As we look backwards in time, an increase of Amur River affinity in West Liao River corresponds with the inclusion of a pastoral economy during the Bronze Age, prior to that, an increased Yellow River affinity in the same region is correlated with the intensification of millet farming in the late Neolithic. Finally, our earliest results show that an affinity of Yellow River to populations from southern China (e.g. from the Yangtze River basin) since the middle Neolithic is concordant with the northward dispersal of rice farming.”

Corresponding author Choongwon Jeong, formerly a geneticist on the eurasia3angle team now affiliated with Seoul National University in South Korea, puts the findings in perspective. “We realize that our current dataset needs ancient genomes from people who brought rice agriculture into northeast China, such as ancient farmers from the Shandong and Lower Yangtze River regions, but nevertheless our study is a major step forward in understanding how this region developed.”

“For me, as a linguist, our findings truly are an eye-opener,” says senior author Martine Robbeets, principal investigator of the eurasia3angle team. “As the West Liao River Basin is associated with the origin of the Transeurasian language family and the Yellow River Basin with the Sino-Tibetan family, our results fuel the debate on the historical correlation between archaeological cultures, languages and genes.”

The study is published in Nature Communications.

Source: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History [June 01, 2020]



Related articles

Anonymous no more: combining genetics with genealogy to identify the dead in unmarked graves

In Quebec, gravestones did not come into common use until the second half of the 19th century, so...

Scientists analyze first ancient human DNA from Southeast Asia

The first whole-genome analyses of ancient human DNA from Southeast Asia reveal that there were at least three...

Bone experts offer how-to video for forensic professionals

Advances in recent years allow forensic practitioners to use bone mineral density to extract more information from human...

Australian researchers solve 600-year-old murder mystery

An Australian anthropologist has solved a murder mystery case involving a death of an Aboriginal man that occurred...

Homo erectus skull discovered in Java

After the absence of any discoveries of ancient human fossils for 80 years, a resident of Sragen, Central...

The brain does not follow the head

The human brain is about three times the size of the brains of great apes. This has to...

Spread of DNA databases sparks ethical concerns

You can ditch your computer and leave your cellphone at home, but you can't escape your DNA. It...

Rock art might help understand how human language has evolved

Understanding how early humans developed their capacities of expression which led to emergence of the language which sets...