Strange fossil in South China reveals intriguing link to early Americans

(ORDO NEWS) — Remains found in a cave in China’s Yunnan province more than 10 years ago have finally given up their secrets: DNA analysis has revealed not only who left them, but also where their ancestors ended up going.

Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences evaluated nuclear and mitochondrial sequences recovered from a 14,000-year-old skull and found that the woman it once belonged to, named Mengzi Ren, was closely related to the populations that eventually became the first to set foot on the American continent.

Since their discovery in 2008, dozens of Late Paleolithic human bones left behind in the Malu Dong Cave (Red Deer Cave) in southwest China have left anthropologists wondering who they might have belonged to.

Lacking sufficient collagen on which to base carbon dating analysis, their age can only be determined from the surrounding features of the burial site. It is not even clear whether all these bones, including the fragment of the skull and the upper part of the femur, belong to the same person.

What is clear is that whoever left them was a unique mixture of archaic and modern characteristics.

Perhaps unlike the older populations of Homo floresiensis, these were human ancestors clinging to survival in southeast Asia. Or perhaps they were a hybrid mixture of much older people and a more modern population.

It is also possible that some of the traits of the ancestors simply remained in their genes despite thousands of years of evolution.

To pinpoint Mengzi Ren’s place in our sprawling family tree, the researchers sequenced all the DNA they could extract and mapped it against a standard genomic reference model.

Because mitochondrial DNA is only passed down through the mother’s egg, they were able to identify her matriarchal ancestry as a now-extinct lineage currently represented by only two modern subpopulations.

A careful study of nuclear DNA has confirmed the close connection of Megzi Ren with anatomically modern people, which practically excludes her belonging to a more ancient genus.

“The ancient DNA technique is a really powerful tool,” says Bing Su, an archaeologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

“He tells us most definitely that the Red Deer Cave people were modern humans and not an archaic species like Neanderthals or Denisovans, despite their unusual morphological features.”

Although Mengzi Ren is more closely related to the modern population of southern China than to the population of the north, she has less in common with the people who live in southeast Asia today, suggesting that well-structured, diversified populations.

This does not mean that Asia was inhabited from the bottom up. There is strong evidence that a relatively small population of humans also descended from north to east to populate it, and this group split up to cross the ice-covered Bering Strait and populate the vast wilderness of America.

Linking Mengzi Ren’s DNA to sequences from this northern population means that there is now strong evidence for links not only between modern Asian populations and the First Nations of the Americas, but also ancient Asian lineages.

“Such data will not only help us build a more complete picture of our ancestors’ migration, but also provide important insights into how people change their appearance in response to local conditions, such as how skin color changes in response to changing sunlight exposure.” Su says.

If all goes according to plan, Mingzi Ren will not be alone in deciphering her genes. Not only in Red Deer Cave, there are more secrets, but in many other late Pleistocene sites throughout Asia.

In these bones, we will no doubt find more details of how modern humans traveled, settled, and explored every inch of our planet.

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