Tag Archives: Asia

Asia’s languages developed and spread alongside rice, millet agriculture

New research is peering into the shared past of the Transeurasian (or ‘Altaic’) family of languages. According to the findings, the hundreds of millions of people who speak one such language today can trace their shared legacy back to a single group of millet farmers that lived 9,000 years ago in what today is northeast China.

Integration of linguistic, agricultural, and genetic expansions in Northeast Asia. Red arrows show the eastward migrations of
millet farmers in the Neolithic, alongside Koreanic and Tungusic languages. Green arrows mark the integration of rice
agriculture in the Late Neolithic and the Bronze Age, alongside the Japonic language. Image credits Martine Robbeets at al, (2021), Nature.

This family of languages includes peoples and countries all across Eurasia, with notable members including Japanese, Korean, Tungusic, Mongolic, and Turkic. As such, it is definitely a very populous language family. Exactly how Transeurasian languages came to be, however, is still a matter of heated debate. This history is rife with expansions, population dispersals, and linguistic dispersals, making it exceedingly difficult to trace back and determine its origin.

New research, however, aims to shed light on this topic. The study combined three disciplines — historical linguistics, ancient DNA research, and archaeology — to determine where Transeurasian languages first originated. According to the findings, its roots formed around 9,000 years ago in modern China and then spread alongside the development and adoption of agriculture throughout Eurasia.

Hard to pinpoint

“We developed a method of ‘triangulation’, bringing linguistics, archaeology, and genetics together in equal proportions in a single approach,” Prof. Dr. habil Martine Robbeets, the corresponding author of the paper, said for ZME Science. “Taken by itself, linguistics alone will not conclusively resolve the big issues in the science of human history but taken together with genetics and archaeology it can increase the credibility and validity of certain scenarios.”

“Aligning the evidence offered by the three disciplines, we gained a more balanced and richer understanding of Transeurasian prehistory than each of the three disciplines could provide us with individually.”

The origin of Transeurasian languages can be traced back to a group of millet farmers — the “Amur ” people — in the Liao valley, according to the team’s findings.

These languages spread throughout Eurasia in two major phases. The first one took place during the Early–Middle Neolithic (Stone Age), when sub-groups of the Amur spread throughout the areas around the West Liao River. During this time, the five major branches of the Transeurasian linguistic family started to develop among the different groups, as the distance between them allowed for the creation of dialects.

The second phase involved contact between these five daughter branches during the Late Neolithic, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. This phase was characterized by these intergroup interactions as well as genetic inflows (and possible linguistic imports from) populations in the Yellow River area, western Eurasian peoples, and Jomon populations. Agriculturally speaking, this period also saw the adoption of rice farming (from the Yellow River area), the farming of crops native to west Eurasia, and pastoralism.

Although the spread of Transeurasian languages was largely driven by the expansion of a single ethnic group, it was not limited to a single one. Several peoples mixed together with the descendants of those millet farmers from the Liao River over time to create the rich tapestry of language, customs, and heritages seen in Eurasia today.

“Our [results] show that prehistoric hunter-gatherers from Northeast Asia as well as Neolithic farmers from the West Liao and Amur all project within the cluster of present-day Tungusic speakers. We call this shared genetic profile Amur-like ancestry,” explains Dr. Robbeets for ZME Science. “Turkic and Mongolic speakers and their ancestors preserve some of this Amur ancestry but with increasing gene flow from western Eurasia from the Bronze Age onwards.”

“As Amur-related ancestry can also be traced back to speakers of Japanese and Korean, it appears to be the original genetic component common to all speakers of Transeurasian languages. So the languages spread with a certain ethnic group, but this ethnic group got admixed with other ethnic groups as it spread across North and East Asia.”

Although we can trace these interactions in the genomes of individuals from across Eurasia, there are still a lot of unknowns. For example, we can’t estimate the degree or direction of linguistic and cultural exchanges between different groups. We can tell that there was an increasing degree of Yellow River genetic legacy woven into the peoples of the West Liao River, but there is no record after which we can gauge whether there was an exchange of words or cultural practices between these groups. Similarly, we can’t estimate the magnitude of the influence this exchange had on the two groups.

Still, one of the topics that Dr. Robbeets wants to underline with these findings is that, in order to truly understand the history of languages in Northeast Asia, a different approach is needed compared to what is being performed today.

“Archaeology and linguistics in Northeast Asia have tended to be conducted within the framework of modern nation-states,” she explained in an email for ZME Science. “Accepting that the roots of one’s language, culture, or people lie beyond the present national boundaries is a kind of surrender of identity, which some people are not yet prepared to make. Powerful nations such as Japan, Korea, and China are often pictured as representing one language, one culture, and one genetic profile but a truth that makes people with nationalist agendas uncomfortable is that all languages, cultures, and humans, including those in Asia, are mixed.”

“Our results show that a much more flexible and international framework is needed.”

Another more direct implication of these findings is that it implies that sedentarism and agriculture took root in the area much earlier than assumed up to now. Previously, the emergence of the Transeurasian family of languages was believed to have coincided with the adoption of livestock herding in Asia’s Eastern Steppes. Tying it to agricultural practices in the Liao River area, however, pushes the timeline of its emergence back roughly 4,000 years.

The paper “Triangulation supports agricultural spread of the Transeurasian languages” has been published in the journal Nature.

Fossil Friday: the oldest kind-of-bat species seen so far, described from set of teeth found in China

Asian bats — I think we’ve all heard more about them than we’d like, these past two years. But new research comes with a twist on that subject. Researchers from the US and China have identified the oldest known bat fossil from the Asian record.

The upper molars of Altaynycteris aurora, from which the species was described. Image credits Matthew F. Jones et al., (2021), Biology Letters.

The discovery helps us better understand the evolutionary history of the only true mammalian flyers, pushing their story back to the Eocene — as far as we know. It also raises the possibility that the bat family originates in Asia entirely, although it’s too soon to say for sure.

Whence bats come from

“Bats show up in the fossil record out of the blue about 55-ish million years ago — and they’re already scattered on different parts of the globe,” said lead author Matthew Jones, a doctoral student at the KU Biodiversity Institute and Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. “Before this, the earliest bats are known from a couple of places in Europe — Portugal and southern France — and Australia. So, when they show up early in the fossil record as these fragmentary fossils they’re already effectively worldwide.”

“By the time we get their earliest known full skeletons, they look modern — they can fly, and most of them are able to echolocate. But we don’t really know anything about this transitional period from non-bats to bats. We don’t even really know what their closest living relatives are among mammals. It’s a really big evolutionary mystery where bats came from and how they evolved and became so specialized.”

The team comprised members from the University of Kansas and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The fossil they describe was unearthed at a remote field site in the Junggar Basin, China, after quite a long digging effort. Although they suspected that the sites would be rich in Paleocene and Eocene fossils, Jones explained, various members of the team worked here for several years, sifting the sediment, before finding any actual fossils.

“We’ve been fortunate enough to be able to host our Chinese colleagues here in Lawrence for extended research visits, and they’ve more than reciprocated by hosting us for research and fieldwork in China. This work in the Junggar Basin is really trailblazing work because the fossil record in this part of China is only just barely beginning to emerge, and this area is very removed and isolated. It’s just a giant empty place. There are some camels, some snakes and lizards, but you don’t see many people there. That remoteness makes the logistics to do fieldwork there quite difficult and expensive because you’ve got to bring in all your food and water from far outside — all of that hindered research in this area previously.”

Residues from the sieving were sent to the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing for sorting. Back in 2017, they got the first sign that their work would pay off: a possible fragment of a fossilized bat — a tooth. One year later, a second tooth was found amid the sieved dirt. Their structure was distinctive enough to suggest they belonged to a yet-undescribed species; the team christened it Altaynycteris aurora.

Residue from the sifting was sent to the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing for sorting. Back in 2017, they got the first sign that their work would pay off: a possible fragment of a fossilized bat — a tooth. One year later, a second tooth was found in the dirt. Their structure was distinctive enough to suggest they belonged to a yet-undescribed species; the team christened it Altaynycteris aurora.

Still, the teeth leave us with more questions than answers. The morphological details of the species remain unknown; we can’t even say for sure whether it was able to fly, or echolocate, like bats today do. According to Jones, they look to be “in between what we would expect a bat ancestor to look like […] and what true bat looks like”.

“So, they have some features that are characteristic of bats that we can point to and say, ‘These are bats.’ But then they have some features that we can call for simplicity’s sake ‘primitive,'” he adds.

The paper “The earliest Asian bats (Mammalia: Chiroptera) address major gaps in bat evolution” has been published in the journal Biology Letters.

The three routes from the "wet" simulations and the single route from the "dry" simulation are presented together in conjunction with palaeoclimatic extents (glaciers and palaeolakes). Credit: Nils Vanwezer and Hans Sell.

Humans may have migrated across several routes in Asia

Our species, Homo sapiens, gradually dispersed across the Asian continent during the Late Pleistocene (120,000-12,000 years ago). Most scholars have assumed a main southern migratory route, along the coast of the Indian Ocean, while routes in Northern and Central Asia were probably neglected due to their rough and inhospitable conditions.

In a new study, researchers found that these allegedly neglected routes are somewhat plausible after all. The authors argue that climate change may have made these regions easier to cross than they are today, opening up a crucial corridor for hominin dispersal.

Ancient lake landforms around Biger Nuur, Mongolia, which is evidence of larger lake sizes in the past. Credit: Nils Vanwezer.

Ancient lake landforms around Biger Nuur, Mongolia, which is evidence of larger lake sizes in the past. Credit: Nils Vanwezer.

Asia is a huge place, but humans managed to colonize it with remarkable efficiency. Most models of human dispersal assume that humans would have avoided passing through the Gobi Desert and the Altai Mountains, instead advancing through India and Southeast Asia or through Siberia, in the north.

However, archaeological findings from the past decade — such as the Denisova Cave and the Baishiya Karst Cave in China — has revealed that many areas of the globe that are today considered inhospitable might not have always been so in the past.

“Our previous work in Saudi Arabia, and work in the Thar Desert of India, has been key in highlighting that survey work in previously neglected regions can yield new insights into human routes and adaptations,” said Professor Michael Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, a co-author of the new study.

The three routes from the "wet" simulations and the single route from the "dry" simulation are presented together in conjunction with palaeoclimatic extents (glaciers and palaeolakes). Credit: Nils Vanwezer and Hans Sell.

The three routes from the “wet” simulations and the single route from the “dry” simulation are presented together in conjunction with palaeoclimatic extents (glaciers and palaeolakes). Credit: Nils Vanwezer and Hans Sell.

The team of researchers at the Max Planck Institute and the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, China, claims that climate change may have made northern corridors more accessible, allowing early human settlers to travel through.

The authors developed a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software that maps geographical features alongside ancient climate records (past lake extents, changing precipitation amounts, changing glacial extents in mountain regions) in order to determine how environmental barriers might open or close different migration corridors.

“We factored in climate records and geographical features into GIS models for glacials (periods during which the polar ice caps were at their greatest extent) and interstadials (periods during the retreat of these ice caps) to test whether the direction of past human movement would vary, based on the presence of these environmental barriers,” said Nils Vanwezer, a Ph.D. student at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and a joint lead-author of the study published in PLOS ONE.

“We found that while during ‘glacial’ conditions humans would indeed likely have been forced to travel via a northern arc through southern Siberia, during wetter conditions a number of alternative pathways would have been possible, including across a ‘green’ Gobi Desert,” he continues.

The authors emphasize that their model does not prove that Pleistocene humans took such pathways. Instead, the study offers plausible pathways for human migration into eastern Asia which subsequent studies can investigate in the field.

“These models will stimulate new survey and fieldwork in previously forgotten regions of northern and Central Asia,” says Professor Nicole Boivin, Director of the Department of Archaeology at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, and co-author of the study. “Our next task is to undertake this work, which we will be doing in the next few years with an aim to test these new potential models of human arrival in these parts of Asia.”

Yeast bags.

Asia may have given the world beer yeast, new research finds

A novel study into the historical origins of beer yeast finds that it likely emerged via an East-West transfer, probably through avenues such as the Silk Route.

Yeast bags.

Image via Pixabay.

The yeast fermenting your beer right now is a mixture of European grape wine and Asian rice wine strains, new research reports. The findings come from a study of the historical origins of brewer’s yeast — which is still poorly understood despite its economic significance — and points to the emergence of beer yeast from a historical East-West transfer of fermentation technology, similar to the transfer of domesticated plants and animals by way of the Silk Route.

An international product

“We conclude that modern beer strains are the product of a historical melting pot of fermentation technology,” the authors explain in the study’s abstract.

Pinpointing the origins of domesticated yeast is not an easy feat. Yeast has been taken along by humans on countless migrations (some recent, others ancient), which mixed its genes quite a lot, and in an unpredictable manner. It’s also made more difficult by a lack of genetic material. Archeologists and anthropologists draw on DNA to date and reconstruct many of the events they’re studying, but they can’t do that with yeast. We simply don’t have suitable samples of ancient fermented beverages from which to draw the microbes used in their production.

The team of the present study turned to beer yeast because one of its characteristics gave them a chance to work around these issues. Many strains of beer yeast are polyploid — the nuclei in their cells have more than two copies of their genome. The team hoped that this abundance of genetic material allowed different strains to remain isolated from other populations, effectively providing a living relic of their ancestors’ DNA.

In order to try and piece together the history of beer yeast, the team sequenced and compared the genomes of different beer yeast strains from around the world. These beer yeast strains formed four related groups, according to the team: two for ales, one for lager, and one which contained both beer and baking yeasts.

All groups showed a mixed ancestry of European grape wine and Asian rice wine strains, with some novel genes (not found in any other populations of yeast) peppered in. The origin of these final genes is still unclear, but judging by their number — they’re quite abundant — the team believes they may have originated in a now-extinct strain (or maybe a living population whose genome has yet to be sequenced).

Piecing together the exact history of the yeast — such as determining the order and likely timing of different events in its evolution — was beyond the team’s grasp, however. While the yeasts’ polyploid genome gave them a way to peer into its family tree, it’s by no means stable; it changes each time yeast cells divide. On the one hand, this makes is impossible for the team to reconstruct its evolution; on the other hand, the same process likely played an important part in the domestication of yeast and its subsequent specialization to various brewing styles.

That’s a good trade-off in my book.

The paper “A polyploid admixed origin of beer yeasts derived from European and Asian wine populations” has been published in the journal PLOS Biology.

A storm even more dangerous than Florence is brewing in Asia — and it’s about to hit land

While the world’s eyes are zoomed in on the US East coast, where 1.7 million people are told to evacuate in order to avoid Hurricane Florence damage, a much stronger storm is lashing out at Southeast Asia: Mangkhut.

Animation from CNN Weather.

Super Typhoon Mangkhut deserves all the superlatives it can get. By far the strongest storm of the season, it is already causing sustained winds of up to 127 mph (204 km/h) and gusts of up to 158 mph (254 km/h). In terms of total intensity, Mangkhut is more dangerous than Florence, but the overall damage will depend on what it hits. If it hits land directly, it could cause tremendous damage.

Although Florence, will hit areas with more costly infrastructure (including several nuclear plants), Mangkhut has stronger winds, a higher storm surge, and an overall larger area — meaning that it threatens to pose a much more serious threat to life. Already, the Asian hurricane broke right through the Marshall Islands and Guam, a US territory, leaving much of Guam without electricity, destroying houses and electricity poles, uprooting trees, and flooding large areas.

Right now, it seems that the Philippines are next in line to be hit by Mangkhut. Already, people have begun evacuating, closing schools, and preparing for the worst. Even down in Hong Kong, people are stockpiling food and placing sandbags in front of their shops and houses to prevent some of the flooding.

Southeast Asia is also expecting another storm: Tropical Storm Barijat. However, at least so far, this is a much smaller and less intense storm than Mangkhut or Florence. As of Thursday morning, Barijat was moving across the western Pacific Ocean with a wind speed of 29 mph (47 km/h), according to Cyclocane, a storm-tracking website. Even so, China has already evacuated 12,000 people from its low-lying coastal areas, according to state-run news agency Xinhua.

There is still a chance that the hurricane will only marginally hit land, and avoid some of the populated areas. But, for now, things aren’t looking good.

Ankylosaur art.

Newly-discovered American ankylosaur turns out to be an Asian immigrant

A new species of dinosaur has been discovered in Utah — and it seems to be more closely related to species in Asia than those in North America.

Ankylosaur art.

Artist’s impression of the newly-discovered species.
Image credits Andrey Atuchin // The Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

The fossil of a new genus and species of ankylosaur has been unearthed in the Kaiparowits Formation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM), in Kane County, southern Utah. Dubbed Akainacephalus johnsoni, the dino is helping reveal the complicated evolutionary history of the club-tailed, bone-plated reptiles.

The fossil represents the most complete skeleton of an ankylosaurid dinosaur ever discovered in the southwestern US, its discoverers report. It includes a complete skull, much of the vertebral column, a complete tail club, fore and hind limbs elements, and bony body armor that includes two neck rings and spiked armor plates.

Made in China-ish

After analyzing the remains, the team found that it is distinct enough from anything else in the fossil record to warrant its own species and genus. The name Akainacephalus johnsoni is derived from the Greek words ‘akaina’ (meaning ‘thorn’ or ‘spike’) and cephalus (‘head’). The ‘johnsoni’ honors Randy Johnson, a volunteer at the museum who helped prepare the specimen — the whole painstaking process took almost four years to complete.

“I’m a retired chemist, but I’ve always been interested in most of the science disciplines. I never thought that I would have the opportunity to actually work on fossils that could be important for paleontologists,” Johnson says.

“Now that I’m a museum volunteer, I’m getting the opportunity to work on a large variety of fossils and consult with top paleontologists – it’s like a dream second career. I couldn’t believe it when they told me they are naming the ankylosaur after me, a once in a lifetime honor.”

But exactly what sets this dinosaur apart from its peers surprised even the team. Instead of following the same trend laid out by North American ankylosaurids during its time (the Late Cretaceous), such as smooth armor plates on its skull, A. johnsoni is more similar to Asian ankylosaurids — who sport pronounced spikes on their skull plates.

The arrangement of the dinosaur’s bony armor — which features small cones and pyramids — was the key giveaway that it is more closely related to Asian species (such as Saichania and Tarchia) than to other North American species of its time (including Ankylosaurus and Euoplocephalus). It also helped the team identify the close ties between this new species and the New Mexican ankylosaurid Nodocephalosaurus kirtlandensis.

“A reasonable hypothesis would be that ankylosaurids from Utah are related to those found elsewhere in western North America, so we were really surprised to discover that Akainacephalus was so closely related to species from Asia,” remarked Randall Irmis, co-author of the study.

Ankylosaurids originated in current-day Asia, first appearing in the fossil record some 125 to 100 million years ago. The first known evidence of them in western North America is roughly 77 million years old. A. johnsoni is roughly just as old, living some 76 million years ago.

Lead author Jelle Wiersma says this distribution of North American ankylosaurs during the Late Cretaceous points to several geologically-brief intervals of low sea levels. These events exposed the Beringian land bridge, allowing Asian ankylosaurids (and other species) to move to present-day North America on several occasions during the time — resulting in the two groups we see today.

Taken together with Nodocephalosaurus from New Mexico, A. jonhsoni points to two separate immigration events over the Beringian land bridge. The earliest group evolved flatter armor, while the second maintained the spikier plates characteristic of Asian ankylosaurs.

The team further reports that the dino once roamed the southern part of Laramidia — a landmass on the western coast of a shallow sea that spanned the central region, splitting the continent of North America in two. This caused isolation along western and eastern portions of the North American continent during the Late Cretaceous Period, between 95-70 million years ago.

The findings have been published in the science journal PeerJ.

Fresh Yeast.

Wild yeast likely evolved in China, reveals genetic sequencing of over 1,000 strains

French researchers report that yeast, too, should be labeled as ‘made in China’.

Fresh Yeast.

An opened package of compressed yeast, produced and bought in Finland.
Image credits Hellahulla / Wikimedia.

It may not seem like it, but the humble yeast is one of the oldest, most hard-working members of team Human Civilization. I’m not going to go into specifics right now, partly because I’m lazy and partly because Elena already did a wonderful job at covering them, here. Suffice to say that society, as we know it, likely couldn’t have existed without the fermenting fervor of yeast.

Despite this, yeast is pretty poorly understood. For example, we know everyone uses it, but not where it first came from. A team of two French geneticists — Gianni Liti from the Université Côte d’Azur, and Joseph Schacherer from the Université de Strasbourg — set out to better understand it.

The team was nothing if not thorough. Their work involved sequencing over 1,000 yeast genomes, ranging from the usual sources such as baker’s or brewer’s yeast to those found in sewage, oil-contaminated asphalt, termite mounds, sea water, one infected nail from a 4-year-old Australian girl. Their approach was thorough by design — the scientists wanted to re-create yeast’s origin and evolutionary path. Getting their hand on as many wild, little-known strains of yeast from as many backgrounds as possible would help paint an accurate picture.

Spoiler alert: it comes from Yeast Asia

“It’s easy to get a thousand wine strains,” says Schacherer, “But that’s not how we wanted to proceed.”

Their results point to East Asia (China) as the yeast’s area of origin.

The most telling clue, according to the team, is that yeast recovered in and around China has the most genetic diversity anywhere in the world. The massive sequencing effort revealed that there are more genetic differences between yeast strains in Taiwan and Hainan — two close-by tropical islands off the coast of China — than there are between strains in Europe and the United States, separated by the entire Atlantic.

The team’s hypothesis isn’t much different than the path what we think humanity followed: the out-of-Africa hypothesis. Just as all of us today descend from populations that came out of Africa, all yeast everywhere descends from strains in East Asia. After these wild yeast strains made it out of Asia, humans likely domesticated them several times for use in food preparation and brewing.

Another surprising find was how strains differed from each other. The standard measure of genetic difference is to look at the same gene in two separate strains and compare the two — how much each gene’s ‘letters’ change, is an indication of how long ago the strains diverged. However, the team found that another metric, the number of times a particular gene is repeated in the genome (known as ‘copy-number variation’) accounts for most of the differences between strains.

This may hold true for other species as well, possibly even us, but we just don’t know for sure; yeast is more easily studied, as its genome is some 200 times shorter than our own. The results, the team says, should prompt more research into copy-number variation in humans, as well.

The paper “Genome evolution across 1,011 Saccharomyces cerevisiae isolates” has been published in the journal Nature.