Ice Age Odyssey: Tracing Ancient Human Migrations From China to the Americas and Japan

Evidence of Ice Age Human Migrations From China to the Americas and Japan

Graphical abstract showing ice age migration routes from northern coastal China to the Americas and Japan. A team of scientists discovered that Native Americans share a female lineage with ancient populations from northern coastal China, adding complexity to the ancestry of Native Americans. By analyzing mitochondrial DNA, the researchers found evidence of two migrations from northern coastal China to the Americas during the last ice age and the subsequent melting period. Another branch of the same lineage migrated to Japan during the second migration, which may explain archeological similarities between the Americas, China, and Japan. This study broadens the understanding of Native American ancestry, which was previously thought to have come mainly from Siberia, Australo-Melanesia, and Southeast Asia. Credit: Li et al.

Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences discovered a female lineage connection between Native Americans and ancient populations in northern coastal China. The study found evidence of two migrations from China to the Americas, with another branch of the same lineage migrating to Japan, explaining archeological similarities between the three regions.

Scientists have used mitochondrial DNA to trace a female lineage from northern coastal China to the Americas. By integrating contemporary and ancient mitochondrial DNA, the team found evidence of at least two migrations: one during the last ice age, and one during the subsequent melting period. Around the same time as the second migration, another branch of the same lineage migrated to Japan, which could explain Paleolithic archeological similarities between the Americas, China, and Japan. The study was published on May 9 in the journal Cell Reports.

“The Asian ancestry of Native Americans is more complicated than previously indicated,” says first author Yu-Chun Li, a molecular anthropologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “In addition to previously described ancestral sources in Siberia, Australo-Melanesia, and Southeast Asia, we show that northern coastal China also contributed to the gene pool of Native Americans.”

Though it was long assumed that Native Americans descended from Siberians who crossed over the Bering Strait’s ephemeral land bridge, more recent genetic, geological, and archeological evidence suggests that multiple waves of humans journeyed to the Americas from various parts of Eurasia.

To shed light on the history of Native Americans in Asia, a team of researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences followed the trail of an ancestral lineage that might link East Asian Paleolithic-age populations to founding populations in Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, and California. The lineage in question is present in mitochondrial DNA, which can be used to trace kinship through the female line.

The researchers scoured over 100,000 contemporary and 15,000 ancient DNA samples from across Eurasia to eventually identify 216 contemporary and 39 ancient individuals belonging to the rare lineage. By comparing the accumulated mutations, geographic locations, and carbon-dated age of each of these individuals, the researchers were able to trace the lineage’s branching path. They identified two migration events from northern coastal China to the Americas, and in both cases, they think that the travelers probably set dock in America via the Pacific coast rather than by crossing the inland ice-free corridor (which would not have opened at the time).

The first radiation event occurred between 19,500 and 26,000 years ago during the Last Glacial Maximum, when ice sheet coverage was at its greatest and conditions in northern China were likely inhospitable for humans. The second radiation occurred during the subsequent deglaciation or melting period, between 19,000 and 11,500 years ago. There was a rapid increase in human populations at this time, probably due to the improved climate, which may have fueled expansion into other geographical regions.

The researchers also uncovered an unexpected genetic link between Native Americans and Japanese people. During the deglaciation period, another group branched out from northern coastal China and traveled to Japan. “We were surprised to find that this ancestral source also contributed to the Japanese gene pool, especially the indigenous Ainus,” says Li.

This discovery helps to explain archeological similarities between the Paleolithic peoples of China, Japan, and the Americas. Specifically, the three regions share similarities in how they crafted stemmed projectile points for arrowheads and spears. “This suggests that the Pleistocene connection among the Americas, China, and Japan was not confined to culture but also to genetics,” says senior author Qing-Peng Kong, an evolutionary geneticist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Though the study focused on mitochondrial DNA, complementary evidence from Y chromosomal DNA suggests that male ancestors of Native Americans also lived in northern China at around the same time as these female ancestors.

This study adds another piece to the puzzle that is Native American ancestry, but many other elements remain unclear. “The origins of several founder groups are still elusive or controversial,” says Kong. “Next, we plan to collect and investigate more Eurasian lineages to obtain a more complete picture on the origin of Native Americans.”

Reference: “Mitogenome evidence shows two radiation events and dispersals of matrilineal ancestry from Northern Coastal China to the Americas and Japan” by Yu-Chun Li, Zong-Liang Gao, Kai-Jun Liu, Jiao-Yang Tian, Bin-Yu Yang, Zia Ur Rahman, Li-Qin Yang, Su-Hua Zhang, Cheng-Tao Li, Alessandro Achilli, Ornella Semino, Antonio Torroni and Qing-Peng Kong, 9 May 2023, Cell Reports.
DOI: 10.1016/j.celrep.2023.112413

This research was supported by funding from the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the National Key R&D Program of China, the Second Tibetan Plateau Scientific Expedition and Research, the Strategic Priority Research Program, the Young Scientists in Basic Research, Key Research Program of Frontiers Science, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Digitalization, Development, and Application of Biotic Resource Program, the Italian Ministry of Education University and Research (MIUR), the Department of Biology and Biotechnology at the University of Pavia and Progetti, High-level Talent, Promotion and Training Project of Kunming, Yunling Scholar of the Yunnan Province, Yunnan Ten Thousand Talents Plan, Young & Elite Talents Project, and Yunnan Fundamental Research Projects.

1 Comment on "Ice Age Odyssey: Tracing Ancient Human Migrations From China to the Americas and Japan"

  1. Hendon Harris | May 11, 2023 at 12:49 pm | Reply

    “History of the Former Han Dynasty” by Pan Ku Translation, Volume Three A Critial Translation with Annotations by HOMER H DUBS Professor of Chinese, Oxford University England 1955
    Pages 214 -215 “The matter was referred to (Wang) Mang. (Wang) Mang memorialized in reply, saying ‘You, (Grand) Empress Dowanger, have controlled the rule for several years; your grace and bounty have inundated and overflowed, so that the filial attitude of submission (has spread over) the four quarters and not even the most distant with different customs have failed to turn toward correct principles. A Yueh-shang potentate, (whose speech must be) successively interpreted, presented a white pheasant; the Huang-chih (came) from (a distance of) thirty thousand li to offer a live rhinoceros as tribute; kings of the Eastern Barbarians
    crossed the Great Ocean to offer the treasures of their states; …”
    Page 511 “Wang Mang seems to have hoarded most of the gold he obtained. ….. This nationalization of gold seems merely to have withdrawn much of the empire’s gold from circulation and to have concentrated it in the imperial palace.” … “Where did this huge amount of gold come from? If the report is correct, it was a greater quantity than the entire visable stock of gold in Europe of the middle ages, which is estimated as not over 3,759,000 oz.”
    I believe I may have the answer to the author’s question. The Chinese at that time did not have the gold mines to produce that much gold. Then where did it come from?
    If the Chinese had the ability to travel the open sea from China to India &/or Africa (Rhino for the Dowanger Empress) then they certainly had the ability using the Wei Lu Current (North Pacific Gyre) to travel back and forth to North America for the lumber there as well as for the gold from the “as of yet” still unidentified” mines that we know of today as the Lost Cities of Gold (El Dorado). Author Henrietta Mertz in her book “Pale Ink or (Gods from the Far East)” using the Shan Hai Jing (2200-2000 BCE) as the reference has identified an ancient Chinese survey expedition going from North to South down to the Rio Grande along the eastern
    slopes of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Along that path there were 12 survey stops. At six of those 12 stops the expedition identified either gold deposits or great gold deposits.
    Did the ancient Chinese return later and mine those locations? Are those locations where the mines the Spanish could never locate be the El Dorado cities and gold mines? Giving greater
    credibility to this “theory” is that the ancient Chinese explorers/surveyors (2000 BCE)located and described what we know of today along this path as “The Great Sand Dunes National Park” 107,342 Acres Coincidence? I think not. “Church Rock Cathedral in the Desert” “Fu Sang
    The Last Wilderness”.

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