On the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, the DNA extracted from the bones of a young hunter-gatherer who died more than 7,000 years ago reveal the narrative of a hitherto unknown tribe of humans.
According to a recent study, this particular human ancestry has never been identified anywhere else in the globe.
The findings were published in the journal Nature.
“We revealed the first ancient human DNA in the ‘Wallacea’ island region between Asia and Australia, providing new insight into the genetic diversity and population history of early modern humans in this little understood part of the world,” study co-author Adam Brumm, a professor of archaeology at Griffith University’s Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution, said in an email.
image courtesy : CNN
The remains of a juvenile hunter-gatherer from 7,000 years ago were discovered in the Leang Panninge cave.
The Wallacea islands, mostly Indonesian islands such as Sulawesi, Lombok, and Flores, are thought to have been utilized by the first modern humans when they traveled from Eurasia to the Australian continent more than 50,000 years ago, according to experts. However, the precise path they took or how they managed to cross is unknown.
“They must have done so using rather advanced boats of some type,” Brumm added, “since there were no land bridges connecting the islands, even during the glacial maxima of the last ice age, when global sea levels were up to 140 meters (459 feet) lower than they are now.”
Humans were living on these islands by 47,000 years ago, according to tools and cave paintings, but the fossil record is scant and old DNA degrades more quickly in the tropical environment.
In 2015, however, researchers discovered the bones of a girl aged 17 to 18 in a cave in Sulawesi. Her skeleton was discovered 7,200 years ago and interred in the cave. She belonged to the Toalean civilization, which existed only in a small area of Sulawesi’s southern peninsula. The cave is part of the Leang Panninge archaeological site.
“Archaeologists have given the term ‘Toaleans’ to a somewhat puzzling prehistoric hunter-gatherer society that flourished in the wooded plains and mountains of South Sulawesi between about 8,000 years ago and around the fifth century AD,” Brumm wrote via email. “They created extremely unusual stone tools (including small, skillfully carved arrowheads called as ‘Maros points’) that are unique to the island and Indonesia.”
According to Brumm, the juvenile hunter-gatherer is the first skeleton connected with the Toalean culture that is largely complete and well-preserved.
Selina Carlhoff, the study’s lead author, was able to extract DNA from the wedge-shaped petrous bone at the bottom of the skull.
Carlhoff, who is also a doctorate candidate at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, stated in a statement that “it was a tremendous task because the remains had been badly deteriorated by the tropical environment.”
DNA holds many secrets.
The time spent retrieving the genetic data was definitely worth it.
The DNA of the young woman revealed that she was descended from the 50,000-year-old first wave of modern humans to invade Wallacea. This was part of the first colonization of “Greater Australia,” which included both Australia and New Guinea during the ice age. These are the forefathers of today’s Indigenous Australians and Papuans, according to Brumm.
And it turns out that the Wallacea islands’ oldest DNA revealed something else: previously discovered ancient people.
Because current Indigenous Australians and Papuans do not share ancestry with this group, she also has a heritage with a different and distinct population from Asia who presumably came after the colonization of Greater Australia, according to Brumm.
“It was previously assumed that the first Asians invaded Wallacea approximately 3,500 years ago when Austronesian-speaking farmers from Neolithic Taiwan surged south through the Philippines and into Indonesia,” he added.”Given the scarcity of archaeological sites in Wallacea and the rarity of ancient skeletal remains, it implies that there may have been a different group of modern humans in this region that we had no clue about up until now.”
There are no descendants of this bloodline left.
Denisovans, an intriguing and extinct human tribe, were also found in her genome. The few fossils that indicate that these early humans ever existed are mostly found in Siberia and Tibet.
In a statement, study co-author Johannes Krause, a professor of archaeogenetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, said, “The fact that their genes are found in the hunter-gatherers of Leang Panninge supports our earlier hypothesis that the Denisovans occupied a far larger geographical area than previously understood.”
When her DNA was compared to that of other hunter-gatherers living west of Wallacea at the same period, no signs of Denisovan DNA were found.
“Denisovans and modern humans may have shared a geographical distribution in the Wallacea area. It might be the crucial location where Denisova people interbred with indigenous Australians and Papuans “In a statement, research coauthor Cosimo Posth, a professor at the Senckenberg Centre for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment at the University of Tübingen in Frankfurt, Germany, stated.
Researchers aren’t sure what happened to the Toalean society, and this recent discovery is one piece of the jigsaw in their quest to learn more about the ancient genetic history of people in Southeast Asia. Brumm aims to extract more ancient DNA from Toaleans in order to illustrate their variety “and larger ancestral narrative.”
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