The world of anthropology is experiencing some tumultuous upheavals these days. First, a trove of ancient bones uncovered in South Africa threatened to rewrite human evolution, and now a Chinese academic believes his research shows the modern day residents of southern China, most of Southeast Asia and eastern India are descended from a common patriarchal figure who once lived in what is today Yunnan province.
Professor Su Bing of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Kunming Institute of Zoology, had his findings published earlier this month in the journal Scientific Reports. The article, which posits a "backward" migration west and south out of Yunnan, is entitled Y-chromosome diversity suggests southern origin and Paleolithic backwave migration of Austro-Asiatic speakers from eastern Asia to the Indian subcontinent.
Several contending theories exist on who the the progenitors of Southeast Asian, eastern Indian and Chinese people were. One of the most commonly accepted versions focuses on a migration of ancient humans out of India roughly 40,000 years ago. This is not fully correct, says Su.
Working with an interdisciplinary group of scientists, Su combined linguistic and genetic research to reach his conclusions. Assessing regions where people still speak the Austro-Asiatic, or Daic family of languages, Su collected Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA samples. He than compared these to already existing research, focusing on mutations of a unique gene — O2a1-M95 — located on the Y-chromosome.
He now believes southern China and Southeast Asia were initially populated by people out of Africa — not India — somewhere around 40,000 years ago. His research points to a dominant group of humans emerging from present-day Yunnan around 15,000 years ago and essentially recolonizing these same areas, as well as eastern India.
Research of the type conducted by Su maps mutations in Y-chromosomes and uses them as date signposts. Su believed that by tracking mutations only in the male line, he could roughly trace where people moved, telling South China Morning Post, "The male migrants mingled with local women whenever they stopped. When they moved on again, they did not take the women with them."
Su concedes he cannot explain why such a migration happened, although conflict and domination would be logical explanations. "The biggest limit of genetic analysis is that it may tell you what happened, where, when and even [to] whom, but not why...The possibility of war cannot be ruled out," he said.
Challenges to established anthropological principles are often met with stringent resistance and withering critique. Professor Su may expect to experience the same, as his research does not specifically address whether ancient migrants out of Africa circumvented India before arriving in southern China. For now, however, his findings shine a new light on the little-understood origins of ancient Yunnanese people.
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