‘Genetic fossil’: intact DNA belonging to a woman who lived 7,200 years ago has been discovered in Indonesia

The skeletal remains of the ancient Toalean woman were found nestled among large rocks in a burial pit in Indonesia’s Leang Panninge cave. Photograph: University of Hasanuddin

Archaeologists have discovered ancient DNA in the remains of a woman who died in Indonesia 7,200 years ago, a finding that challenges what was previously known about the migration of early humans.

The remains of a teenager nicknamed bessé were discovered in Leang panninge cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. In 2015, the first excavations were carried out.

The discovery, published in the journal Nature, is believed to be the first time ancient human DNA has been discovered in Wallacea, a vast chain of islands and atolls in the ocean between mainland Asia and Australia Dec.

DNA was extracted from the petrous part of bessé’s temporal bone, which housed the inner ear.

Prof Adam Brumm, of Griffith University, who led the research, said intact DNA was a rare find.

“The humid tropics are very relentless about preserving DNA in ancient human bones and teeth,” Brumm said.

“There are only one or two pre-Neolithic skeletons that give ancient DNA throughout the entire Southeast Asian mainland.

“Elsewhere in the world – in the northern latitudes of Europe, in America-ancient DNA analysis is completely revolutionizing our understanding of the early human story: the genetic diversity of ancient people, population movements, demographic history.”

Initial excavations started in 2015 at the Leang Panninge cave on the island of Sulawesi. Photograph: University of Hasanuddin

Researchers describe Bessé as a “genetic fossil.” Brumm said genetic sequencing shows that it has a unique ancestral past that is not shared by anyone living today or any known human from the ancient past.

About half of bessé’s genetic makeup is similar to modern-day Indigenous Australians and people from New Guinea and the western Pacific Islands.

“Their ancestors would have been part of the first wave of movement of the first humans from mainland Asia from these Wallacean islands towards what we call Sahul, the combined ice age land mass of Australia and New Guinea today,” Brumm said.

Surprisingly, Bessé’s DNA showed an ancient link to East Asia that challenged what was previously known about the timeline of migration to Wallacea.

Brumm, “the ancestors of the first entries Asian people mainly Wallacean region, about three or four thousand years ago, neolithic farmers in the region are considered when the first prehistoric Taiwan.” said.

“If we find this Asian lineage in a hunter-gatherer man who lived thousands of years before these Neolithic people came from Taiwan, then this indicates that a population migrated from Asia to this region earlier.”

Bessé is also the first known skeleton belonging to the Toalean culture, a group of hunter-gatherers who lived in South Sulawesi between 1,500 and 8,000 years ago.

He was 17-18 years old at the time of his burial. Prehistoric stone tools and red vaccine paint were found near his remains. His grave also contained the bones of wild animals hunted.

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