Qiaomei Fu et al., DNA analysis of an early modern human from Tianyuan Cave, China. PNAS 2013. Open access → LINK [doi: 10.1073/pnas.1221359110]
Hominins with morphology similar to present-day humans appear in the fossil record across Eurasia between 40,000 and 50,000 y ago. The genetic relationships between these early modern humans and present-day human populations have not been established. We have extracted DNA from a 40,000-y-old anatomically modern human from Tianyuan Cave outside Beijing, China. Using a highly scalable hybridization enrichment strategy, we determined the DNA sequences of the mitochondrial genome, the entire nonrepetitive portion of chromosome 21 (∼30 Mbp), and over 3,000 polymorphic sites across the nuclear genome of this individual. The nuclear DNA sequences determined from this early modern human reveal that the Tianyuan individual derived from a population that was ancestral to many present-day Asians and Native Americans but postdated the divergence of Asians from Europeans. They also show that this individual carried proportions of DNA variants derived from archaic humans similar to present-day people in mainland Asia.
|Part of fig. 1
And the old guy (or is it a woman?) happened to carry the matrilineage (mtDNA) B, more specifically B4’5
, defined by a relatively long deleted block at positions
8281-8289 (this excludes B6 now linked with R11 and also the other relative of all them R24, see PhyloTree
for details). However within B4’5 the lineage could not further be resolved within the modern haplogroups, so it is neither B4 nor B5 but a third branch of the same haplogroup.
The authors actually talk of “haplogroup B” but they explicitly mention a deletion of a 9-bp motif (5′-CCCCCTCTA-3′, revised Cambridge reference sequence positions 8,281–8,289) as well as a substitution at position 16,189, what makes it unmistakable B4’5 per the current PhyloTree build.
The tree to the right illustrates this fact, placing Tianyuan man’s lineage hanging directly from the root of this haplogroup that, beyond reasonable doubt, coalesced somewhere in East Asia (probably SE Asia, with Laos and Hainan being good references judging on diversity
) some time before this person lived and died near what today is Beijing.
What does it tell us? Really nothing new, at least within the parameters I have been managing: it confirms that the expansion of mtDNA B4’5 was already happening back in that time and that it had reached more or less its current area of expansion in East Asia (American and Oceanian B variants expanded later, of course). It also implies that its ancestors R and N, which experienced important successive expansions in the course of the colonization of Eurasia by our species had expanded at an even earlier date (again nothing new to me but a nice confirmation anyhow).
On the other hand, this person’s particular matrilineage went eventually extinct later on. This again does not tell us too much because it is something to expect with the course of time, especially at low population densities, as was the case in the Paleolithic. He can still be ancestral to modern peoples in the area and elsewhere but not by a purely mother-to-daughter line – at least not that we know.
Chromosome 21 autosomal DNA
Because of the poor state of the DNA, the researchers had a difficult time sequencing it (technical details in the paper), however they managed to reconstruct a good deal of chromosome 21, which they used to compare with modern humans and also with Neanderthals and the so-called Denisovans.
The result places Tianyuan closer to modern Far Eastern populations than to the rest of modern humans. This clearly indicates that the process of division in various more or less homogeneous subcontinental-sized populations was already somewhat advanced.
|Fig. 2. Maximum-likelihood tree relating the chromosome 21 sequences of the Tianyuan individual, 11 present-day humans, and the Denisovan genome. The most strongly supported gene-flow event is shown in yellow. Bootstrap support for all internal edges is 100% except for the edge putting Tianyuan outside the four Asians, which is 31%. The scale bar shows 10 times the average standard error of the entries in the covariance matrix.
While it is generally acknowledged that Papuans cluster at very deep level with East Asians, the authors are not fully persuaded of the exactitude of this tree, particularly in this aspect. They declare:
We note, however, that the relationship of the Tianyuan and Papuan individuals is not resolved (bootstrap support 31%). Further work is necessary to clarify whether this reflects the age of the Tianyuan individual relative to the divergence between modern human populations.
The caveat is particularly relevant because the colonization of New Guinea is at least as old as 49,000 years ago
, some ten millennia before Tianyuan, what does not fit too well with the tree at that level of detail, assuming (as I do) that modern Papuans are direct unmixed descendants of those early settlers. Papuans do carry at high frequencies a related matrilineage (P also basal descendant from R) but that is also true of modern Europeans and they appear more distant in the tree above.
A good contrast to understand better the difficulties in getting a good picture from autosomal DNA, especially one so old, is table 1:
Here we can appreciate the differences and proximities by another measure. The closest compared modern person to Tianyuan man is a Karitiana, followed closely by the Han and, surprisingly, by the Sardinian and the French, and only then the Dai and Papuan.
The distance of the Karitiana to Tianyuan man is still greater than that with not just the Han or the Dai but also the Europeans. However this can be argued to be because Native Americans must have a deep dual East Asian and West Eurasian origin, the latter via Altai (Y-DNA Q, mtDNA X2).
Let’s check the Han then, who are not believed to have any meaningful West Eurasian admixture. Curiously the paradox happens again: the Han is somewhat closer to Europeans by this measure than to Tianyuan, and even their comparison with the Papuan shows up slightly less differentiated.
This is admittedly harder to explain but we can conclude that either (a) this method can only grasp affinity/divergence to some degree or (b) that the Tianyuan partial genome indicates a very preliminary level of continental differentiation. Or (c) both. Of course time is the main cause of genetic differentiation and by no means we can imagine that such an ancient individual would be too similar to his modern plausible descendants but, on the other hand, all (including Tianyuan mtDNA) indicates that the process of continental differentiation was already well developed 40,000 years ago (most European ancestry must come from people living in Europe or West Asia back then) so we can either blame subtle flows like Siberian migrations that have kept both genetic pools somewhat closer than in pure isolation or we must assume that the measure is not too exact.
Admixture with other human species
The paper also deals with Denisovan and Neanderthal admixture, finding that Tianyuan man was within the modern range for both parameters in East Asia.
This is very important because it ratifies the mainstream model of two minor admixture episodes: (1) with Neanderthals at the exit from Africa and prior to the Great Eurasian Expansion (so all non-Africans, including Tianyuan man, have very similar levels of Neanderthal admixture today) and (2) with a relative of Denisovans (Homo erectus?) maybe in Indonesia affecting only (or almost only) the aboriginal peoples of Oceania (and Filipino Negritos but not the other so-called Negritos from Malaysia or the Andaman, who are not particularly related anyhow).
(As a side note notice that the Denisovan
-like gene flow into Papuans in fig. 2 appears to hang not from the end of the branch but from a very high position, suggesting it was a relative and not the known Denisovans
of Altai themselves who became admixed into Papuans and other Oceanian populations, probably a relative living in the route to Australasia).
Update: Marnie just published a mention of a previous work on Tianyuan 1, which focuses on the isotopic evidence for a fish-based diet.