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DNA from Ancient Skeleton Sheds Light on Previously Unknown Humans

early human ancient skeleton sulawesi
The ancient skeleton of a young woman in Sulawesi, Indonesia sheds light on early humans. Credit: University of Hasanuddin

DNA retrieved from the ancient skeleton of a teenage girl found in Sulawesi, Indonesia has shed light on a group of previously unknown humans, providing insight into our development as a species.

Information regarding the discovery of the stone-age skeleton, which was found in a cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, was published by a group of scientists in the journal Nature.

Scientists analyzed the skeleton of the girl, who was a hunter-gatherer who lived over seven thousand years ago, and determined that her DNA belonged to a group of humans that was previously unknown to science.

They hope that the discovery will shed light on the development of early humans in Asia, which is not fully understood.

Experts have linked the girl, who was believed to have been eighteen years of age, to a group of early humans called the Toaleans, a group of early humans who have their own distinct culture and are only found on the island of Sulawesi.

Some of the oldest cave paintings in the world have been linked to the Toaleans, and the group had a long history. The Toaleans thrived in the region from around eight thousand years ago until the fifth century AD.

While her remains, buried amongst carefully-placed stones, were discovered in 2015, researchers have only now published their findings about her DNA, which was retrieved from a bone at the base of her skull, and is linked to the Toaleans.

Her skeleton is the most complete and most well-preserved of all Toalean remains found thus far and has provided the first complete DNA sample of any ancient skeleton in that region.

The hot and humid climate of the region degrades biological material extremely quickly, making ancient remains quite rare in the region.

DNA from ancient skeleton found in Sulawesi tells story of human migration

Adam Brumm, co-author of the study and professor of archaeology at Griffith University, said in speaking to CNN that “we have discovered the first ancient human DNA in the island region between Asia and Australia, known as ‘Wallacea,’ providing new insight into the genetic diversity and population history of early modern humans in this little understood part of the world.”

The Wallacean islands, the area where the DNA was found, are considered integral to human evolution, as experts believe humans from Eurasia passed through them to reach Australia in ancient times.

While the vast majority of researchers agree that ancient humans traveled through the islands to reach Australia and Papua New Guinea, the method of travel and exact route are unknown.

The DNA of the ancient skeleton has been linked to the Toaleans, who share a genetic link with Aboriginal Australians and New Guineans. This proves that this group was part of the ancient colonization of “Greater Australia,” which includes Papua New Guinea. However, the girl also shares genomes from a previously unknown group of humans.

Genetic information from this mysterious group, which is from Asia, is found in Wallacea but has no link to Aboriginal Australians and New Guineans, indicating that these humans came after the colonization of “Greater Australia” and may have coexisted with other groups in Wallacea.

No modern humans share any genetic information with this previously-unknown group of ancient humans.

“Previously, it was thought that the first time people with Asian genes entered Wallacea was around 3,500 years ago when Austronesian-speaking farmers from Neolithic Taiwan swept down through the Philippines and into Indonesia,” Brumm told CNN.

“It suggests that there might have been a distinct group of modern humans in this region that we really had no idea about up until now, as archaeological sites are so scarce in Wallacea and ancient skeletal remains are rare,” he continued.

The young girl’s DNA also revealed links to an ancient group called the Denisovans, who have been linked to Siberia and Tibet through fossil evidence. All Asians have Denisovan DNA.

This genetic link indicates that the Denisovans may have inhabited a much broader area than previously thought and bred with other groups in the Wallacea region, such as the Toaleans and other ancestors of Aboriginal Australians and New Guineans.

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