DNA points to millennia of stability in East Asian hunter-fisher population

7,700-year-old remains show lack of influx from other groups

East Asian hunter-gatherer skull

OLD BONES This 7,700-year-old skull of a hunter-gatherer from East Asia belonged to a group of people who are genetically similar to groups living in the area today.

Elizaveta Veselovskaya

In a remote corner of eastern Russia, where long winters bring temperatures that rarely flicker above freezing, the genetic legacy of ancient hunter-gatherers endures.

DNA from the 7,700-year-old remains of two women is surprisingly similar to that of people living in that area today, researchers report February 1 in Science Advances. That finding suggests that at least some people in East Asia haven’t changed much over the last 8,000 years or so — a time when other parts of the world saw waves of migrants settle in.

“The continuity is remarkable,” says paleogeneticist Carles Lalueza-Fox of the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona, who was not involved with the work. “It’s a big contrast to what has been found in Europe.”

In Western Europe especially, scientists studying ancient DNA have put together a picture of flux, says study coauthor Andrea Manica. “Every few thousand years, there are major turnovers of people.” Around 8,000 years ago, he says, migrating farmers replaced hunter-gatherers in the area. And a few thousand years after that, Bronze Age migrants from Central Asia swept in.

In DNA collected from the bones and teeth of these ancient peoples, scientists can spot genetic signatures of different populations. When a population of farmers balloons, Lalueza-Fox says, the signatures of hunter-gatherers are mostly erased.

But whether that’s true across the globe is unclear, says Manica, of the University of Cambridge. “We wanted to see what happened in other places…. Asia is huge compared to Europe, and it’s been neglected.”

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Manica’s team collected DNA from the skeletons of five ancient people found in a cave called Devil’s Gate. The cave rests in a far east finger of Russia, tucked along the border of China and North Korea, and holds human remains, scraps of textiles and bits of broken pottery.

Researchers gathered enough DNA from two of the people to piece together about 6 percent of the genome, the complete set of genetic instructions inside a cell’s nucleus. That’s not much, Manica says, but it’s enough to compare the Devil’s Gate denizens with other people. The researchers analyzed the genomes of people strewn across the far reaches of the continent — from the Dolgan in Siberia to the Thai thousands of kilometers south.

Genetically, the 7,700-year-old women closely resembled the Ulchi, a small group of hunter-fishers who still live off the land today. Manica can’t say whether the Ulchi are direct descendants of the two Devil’s Gate women, or just closely related. But the find suggests a pocket of stability in East Asia — a place where hunter-gatherers weren’t swept out by, or folded into, booming groups of farmers.

Perhaps farming didn’t take off there because the cold climate wasn’t good for growing crops, Manica says. Or maybe the ideas and technologies from farmers and other migrants made it to the Ulchi without an accompanying influx of people. (The Ulchi aren’t like primitive hunter-gatherers of the past. They farm a bit, and have adopted new ways to fish, hunt and store food, he points out.)

“This shows that ideas can travel without people moving with them,” Manica says.

That makes sense, Lalueza-Fox says. But scientists now need more data — additional samples from East Asia, and Southeast Asia, too, he says. “I have a feeling the whole story will be much more complicated.”

Meghan Rosen is a staff writer who reports on the life sciences for Science News. She earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology with an emphasis in biotechnology from the University of California, Davis, and later graduated from the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz.

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