Antique DNA analysis reveals Asian migrations and outbreaks of plague

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There is a complex history of migrations and plague outbreaks in Northeastern Asia.

That is the essence of an international archaeogenetic study published in Science Advances and led by Stockholm University’s Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies. The study examined genomic data of 40 individuals excavated in northeastern Asia from archaeological remains.

Anders Götherström, professor at the Center for Paleogenetics of the University of Stockholm and lead author of the study, says: “It’s striking that we find everything here, both continuity and recurrent migrations, as well as disease-related bacteria,”

The researchers found that demographic events have occurred in the past that apply to the entire region of Lake Baikal.

There was, for instance, a migration event about 8300 years ago that could be observed both east and west of Lake Baikal.

But events specific to each of the two areas were also present.

While the areas west of Lake Baikal are proof of recurrent migration and intense mobility, the areas east of Lake Baikal have maintained long-term continuity for millennia, with limited mobility apparently from other regions.

“It is fascinating that our data reveal complex and contrasting patterns of demographic change in one of the most sparsely populated regions on Earth; including remarkable gene flow and, at the same time, genetic continuity without major demographic changes in the two areas around Lake Baikal,” says lead author Gulsah Merve Kilinc, a former postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Archaeology.

The study also provides some new clues to the history of the people living in northern Greenland and Canada, the Paleo-Inuit groups.

While it has been suggested that a role in the early history of the Paleo-Inuit was played by the so-called Belkachi complex, a cultural group in the Baikal region, it was not possible to study this in detail.

Analyses of remains of an individual linked to the Belkachi cultural complex, dated more than 6000 years before present, now show that there is a link on Greenland to a previously published Paleo-Inuit (Saqqaq) individual (dated approximately 4000 years BP).

“This is the first genetic evidence of a link between a Neolithic human group in Yakutia and the later Paleo-Inuit groups, and this will inspire new research on demographic evolution,” says Jan Storå, a professor at the Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies at the University of Stockholm’s Osteoarchaeological Research Laboratory.

Finally, new data on the easternmost occurrences of the Yersinia pestis bacterium, the plague, is provided by the study. DNA from Yersinia pestis was carried by an individual from the Lena Basin, dated to about 3800 years ago and buried with individuals that proved to be genetically closely related.

Yersinia pestis was also carried by a person from the region west of Lake Baikal, dating to around 4400 years ago.

Interestingly, judging from genomic data, the population west of Lake Baikal appears to have declined about 4400 years ago.

“Although we need more data, our discovery of a decrease in effective population size that coincided with the appearance of Yersinia pestis suggests the possible presence of a prehistoric plague – possibly a pandemic. However, this is only a conjecture that remains to be confirmed,” says Emrah Kirdök, a former postdoctoral researcher at Stockholm University’s Department of Archaeology and Ancient Studies and currently a lecturer at Mersin University in Turkey.

Reference: “Human population dynamics and Yersinia pestis in ancient northeast Asia” by Gülsah Merve Kilinç, Natalija Kashuba, Dilek Koptekin, Nora Bergfeldt, Handan Melike Dönertas, Ricardo Rodríguez-Varela, Dmitrij Shergin, Grigorij Ivanov, Dmitrii Kichigin, Kjunnej Pestereva, Denis Volkov, Pavel Mandryka, Artur Kharinskii, Alexey Tishkin, Evgeniy Ineshin, Evgeniy Kovychev, Aleksandr Stepanov, Love Dalén, Torsten Günther, Emrah Kirdök, Mattias Jakobsson, Mehmet Somel, Maja Krzewinska, Jan Storå, and Anders Götherström, 6 Januaray 2021, Science Advances. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abc4587

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