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Genome research gives insights into ancient migrations

14 January 20160 comments

Research into the human genome is yielding new information about how humanity spread across the globe.

And the new data is completely changing our understanding of the way mankind settled the planet through mapping waves of migration.

New data is changing our understanding of how humanity settled across the globe

An artist’s re-creation of the first human migration to North America from across the Bering Sea.

Scientists across the globe currently studying genomes – or genetic signatures – are making new discoveries that are creating a more accurate picture of how ancient humans colonised the globe, and how that impacted our modern world.

This research has been completely overturning theories of where many races came from, and why they possessed certain traits throughout their evolution.

Just this week researchers in Ireland announced that evidence found in four human skeletons indicates that migrant communities did not compete with the original Irish, but became the Irish.

The bones belong to a woman farmer over 5000 years old and three men that lived between 3000 and 4000 years ago, found near Belfast and on Rathlin Island.

Scientists from the Trinity College Dublin used a technique called whole-genome analysis to “read” a wider history of ancestral migration and settlement in the DNA from all four bodies, rather than the unique characteristics of each individual.

The results show that Stone Age settlers with origins in the Fertile Crescent, and Bronze Age economic migrants, who began a journey somewhere in Eastern Europe, created the Ireland we know today.

“There was a great wave of genome change that swept into Europe from above the Black Sea into Bronze Age Europe and we now know it washed all the way to the shores of its most westerly island,” said Dan Bradley, professor of population genetics at Trinity College Dublin.

“And this degree of genetic change invites the possibility of other associated changes, perhaps even the introduction of language ancestral to western Celtic tongues.”

Agriculture and the advance of metallurgy, two great changes in European history, were not culture shifts but due to migrants overwhelming the previous population of hunter gatherers.

“It is clear that this project has demonstrated what a powerful tool ancient DNA analysis can provide in answering questions which have long perplexed academics regarding the origins of the Irish,” said Eileen Murphy, who lectures in osteoarchaeology at Queen’s in Belfast.

But it’s not only Ireland learning about its real roots.

Research by the University of Leeds has presented new evidence that squashes current theories of how humans colonised the Pacific.

The first inhabitants of the islands of Polynesia were thought to have come from Taiwan, Pacific islanders being from the latter part of a migration south and eastwards.

However, the Leeds research shows that the DNA of current Polynesians can be traced back to migrants from the Asian mainland who had already settled in islands close to New Guinea some 6-8,000 years ago.

The study, which involved researchers from the UK, Taiwan and Australia, was led by Professor Martin Richards.

“Most previous studies looked at a small piece of mtDNA, but for this research we studied 157 complete mitochondrial genomes in addition to smaller samples from over 4,750 people from across Southeast Asia and Polynesia,” said Professor Richards.

“We also reworked our dating techniques to significantly reduce the margin of error. This means we can be confident that the Polynesian population — at least on the female side — came from people who arrived in the Bismarck Archipelago of Papua New Guinea thousands of years before the supposed migration from Taiwan took place.”

According to Professor Richards, it’s likely there was a ‘voyaging corridor’ between the islands of Southeast Asia and Bismarck Archipelago which carried traders who brought their language and artefacts, and possibly encouraged the migration into the Pacific.

“Our study of the mtDNA evidence shows the interactions between the islands of Southeast Asia and the Pacific was far more complex than previous accounts tended to suggest and it paves the way for new theories of the spread of Austronesian languages.”

Discoveries into ancient migration throughout the world do more than tell us what people went where, but how the language, traits and ways of life we know today was influenced by so many other cultures.

As scientists continue to make ground breaking work through DNA on migration, the interconnectedness of our world’s rich cultural tapestry becomes clearer and will hopefully contribute to strengthening our solidarity with one another.


Ruby Brown
AMES Australia Staff Writer