Ancient DNA reveals diversity of Southeast Asia

by Mary Caperton Morton
Friday, August 3, 2018

Southeast Asia is one of the most genetically and linguistically diverse regions on Earth. New sequencing of ancient human DNA is helping scientists piece together the puzzle of how repeated influxes of hunter-gatherers and farmers to the area over the last 50,000 years created the high level of diversity seen today.

In one of the first efforts to study the genetic history of the region, David Reich, of Harvard Medical School, and colleagues extracted DNA from the remains of 18 people who lived between 4,100 and 1,700 years ago in what are now Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. As reported in Science, the team found evidence of at least three major migrations into the region, starting with hunter-gatherers roughly 45,000 years ago.

Then about 4,500 years ago, a wave of Neolithic farmers from China brought new agricultural practices and Austroasiatic-based languages to the region. More recently, during the Bronze Age, influxes from China arrived in Myanmar about 3,000 years ago, then Vietnam about 2,000 years ago, and lastly in Thailand about 1,000 years ago. These later migrations likely brought the dominant languages spoken in the region today.

“The major population turnover that came with the arrival of farmers is unsurprising, but the magnitudes of replacement during the Bronze Age are much higher than many people would have guessed,” Reich said in a statement. “This study reveals a complex interplay between archaeology, genetics and language, which is critical for understanding the history of Southeast Asian populations,” added co-author Ron Pinhasi of the University of Vienna in Austria.

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