Oxford research traces early human migration from Africa to Asia

For further information, please contact:

Barbara Hott

University of Oxford


01865 280531

28 January 2003


Research by Oxford University and collaborators has shed new light on the last 100,000 years of human migration from Africa into Asia. The new genetic study confirms that some of the earliest migrants travelled into Asia by a southern route, possibly along the coasts of what are now Pakistan and India. The researchers identified a genetic marker in museum samples of inaccessible populations from the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. This allowed them to re-interpret previous genetic studies from the Indian sub-continent.

Professor Alan Cooper, Director of the Henry Wellcome Ancient Biomolecules Centre at Oxford University, who led the study, said: 'The findings mark a significant step forward in our understanding of the nature and timing of human settlement of the world outside Africa, and may even give us a glimpse of what these ancient explorers looked like genetically.'

The Andaman Islanders have been an enigma since the early days of Victorian anthropology due to their distinctive physical appearance. They have a very short stature, dark pigmentation and tight curly hair which contrasts with settled populations practising agriculture in the region. The same features link them to other isolated populations throughout Southern Asia, many of whom are hunter-gatherers. This has lead to speculation that these groups might represent the original inhabitants of the region who have either been replaced or absorbed into more recent population expansions. More fancifully, some people have speculated that they are related to African Pygmy populations.


Relationships between different groups of people can be described by analysing mutations in mitochondrial DNA, a genetic component that is passed on maternally. The majority of people in Asia have been shown to carry mitochondrial DNA of a type known as haplogroup M, which has several subgroups and can be traced back 60,000 years. In the new study, the Andamans have been shown to belong to the M group, and most likely to its subgroup M2, which is around 53,000 years old.

This provides evidence that the Andamanese are no more related to Africans than any of the rest of Eurasian populations, and may indeed be linked to surviving hunter-gatherer groups in mainland India who also carry the M2 marker. These groups are found at high frequency in the south of India, consistent with an original settlement of Asia by a coastal route within the last 100,000 years.

Dr Vincent Macaulay of the Department of Statistics in Oxford commented: 'Detailed analysis of haplogroup M will help us to flesh out the tempo and mode of this southern dispersal, which may have reached Australia and New Guinea very rapidly. The sequencing and analysis of complete mitochondrial genomes will play an important role.'

Prof Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London, who took part in the study, said: 'The findings suggest that the similarities between these now isolated populations of Asia are not coincidental and that these peoples really do share a common history. The presence of M2 in significant proportions amongst the more European looking caste populations of India indicates that many of these early settlers were absorbed into later population expansions.'

The success of this study has led to the award of a major grant from the National Environment Research Council (NERC) to extend the work to other now vanished populations in the region. The aim of the ‘Indian Rim Project’ is to understand the nature and timing of human evolution and migration throughout this area and the effects of environmental change on these patterns.


Notes for editor

The Henry Wellcome Ancient Biomolecules Centre, directed by Professor Alan Cooper, is part of the Oxford University Department of Zoology. Current research areas include the analysis of permafrost preserved mammals and plants, island evolution and extinctions, and the investigation of DNA from archaeological specimens. Following a successful bid to the Wellcome Trust and the UK government (JIF grant), new premises are currently being built in the Science Area and due to open in Spring 2003.


Peer reviewed publication and references

Philip Endicott et al. 2003, ‘The Genetic Origins of the Andaman Islanders’, American Journal of Human Genetics 72:178–184

Reference URL : http://abc.zoo.ox.ac.uk




Tuesday, 28 January, 2003, 17:10 GMT

Gorse and bracken taking over moor


Mild winters are encouraging gorse and bracken growth

Parts of Dartmoor are becoming so overgrown with gorse and bracken that they cannot be used by walkers.

Scientists say climate change is to blame for the increase in the plants.

Milder winters mean the growth of gorse and bracken is not checked, while warmer summers encourage their spread.

Farmers are now planning more controlled burning of the moorland to remove scrub.

Dartmoor ecologist Peter Beale said: "If this situation carries on unchecked, there will be a loss of grazing and a loss of archaeological features, as people will not be able to see them.

"It will also be much more difficult for people to walk on the moor."

Ramblers have already noticed problems caused by the proliferation of the gorse and bracken.

Don Millgate, from the Dartmoor Ramblers' Association, said: "Most of the moor is still accessible for walkers.

"But in some parts the gorse and the bracken can be a problem."

The overgrowth is also bad for wildlife.

Ground nesting birds, like the skylark, need open spaces to breed.

Increased swaling

Dartmoor farmers are now planning to increase swaling on the moor - where the undergrowth is deliberately burnt, but in a controlled manner.

But they say another problem is the government's "environmentally sensitive area" scheme for Dartmoor.

This encourages overgrowth by cutting stock on the moor.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said the scheme was being reviewed to see if introducing more animals could help keep plant growth in check through grazing.


Monday, 27 January, 2003, 22:36 GMT

Prehistoric Britons' taste for milk

The oldest direct evidence for the existence of dairy farming has been discovered in the UK.

It is based on a chemical analysis of milk fat deposits left on pottery fragments found to be 6,500 years old.

Although the practice of milking animals for food was undoubtedly developed elsewhere and then introduced into Britain, this is the earliest time for which researchers have been able to show definitively that it was going on.

According to the chief scientist of English Heritage, Dr Sebastian Payne, the discovery demonstrates once again the sophistication of Neolithic society.

He told BBC News Online: "Don't underestimate prehistoric man; it is a mistake to think he was simple and stupid. This work tells us that the diet of the time was far more varied than is sometimes thought."

He added: "We can't be certain but it was likely that prehistoric man converted the milk to cheese or butter because these are products you can store and will last through the year."

Carbon atoms

Dr Payne and colleagues from Bristol University report their pot analysis in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

They examined the chemical residues on 950 potsherds - ancient broken dishes - from 14 archaeological sites right across the UK.

But the oldest fragments were sourced from Neolithic digs at Hambledon Hill in Dorset, the Eton Rowing Lake in Buckinghamshire and Windmill Hill in Wiltshire.

The researchers examined each sherd for evidence of fats from milk or meat.

Although the fats are chemically very similar, milk fats contain different ratios of carbon atoms (carbon-12 and carbon-13) compared to meat fats.

This is a direct outcome of the way mammary glands in ruminant animals such as sheep and cows process the carbon in their diet to make milk.

The results of the study showed clearly that even the oldest sherds had come into contact with milk, indicating the practice of dairying in Britain goes back beyond 4,500 BC


Scientists believe humans began to move away from a society based on hunting and gathering to one built around farming more than 10,000 years ago.

The new agrarian technologies are likely to have originated in the Near East, before spreading north and west. But establishing when and where exactly dairy husbandry started has not been easy.

Archaeologists have relied on artefacts such as ancient cheese strainers to get some clues as to its origin. There are even some pictorial records dating to about 3,000 or 4,000 BC that suggest the practice was going on in Egypt and the Sahara.

And the discovery of animal bones of greater age at archaeological sites also hints at systematic milking, as it is younger animals (even today) that tend to be kept for their meat.

"It is clear that by the time farming reached Britain, milk was already an important commodity," said Dr Mark Copley, the lead researcher on the PNAS study.

"The next big step is to trace the line back through the earlier communities to find the origin of dairying.

"If one was to take a pot from, say, the Mediterranean, it is more than likely we would find older evidence. This is what we are trying to do now."


Spy Photos Reveal Ancient Middle East Road Network

Mon January 27, 2003 03:54 PM ET


CHICAGO (Reuters) - Bronze Age inhabitants of what is now modern-day Iraq, Syria and Turkey traded and traveled more widely along a network of highways than previously thought, archeologists studying newly released U.S. spy photographs said on Monday.

Around 5,000 years ago, wheeled wagons navigated along wide dirt roads that extended dozens of miles across the fertile prairies of northern Iraq and its neighboring states, and probably to the Mediterranean Sea, the research showed.

"We assumed that these ancient sites were pretty parochial, but in fact they were tied together by well-traveled highways," said University of Chicago archeologist Tony Wilkinson, who co-authored a paper on the findings to be published in the upcoming issue of the journal Antiquity.

Domesticated agriculture was already well established by the Bronze Age period under study, having emerged thousands of years earlier further south in Mesopotamia where the physical evidence of trading routes disappeared long ago in the wetter soils.

To the drier north, remnants of the spoke-like system of roads were still readily visible when the satellite photographs were snapped in the Cold War-era 1960s and 1970s by U.S. spy agencies searching the region for Soviet-made weapons. Thousands of photos have been declassified in recent years.

The detailed aerial views made it possible for the archeologists to map the extensive network of roads linking Bronze Age towns that housed as many as 20,000 residents each.

Smaller byways that split off from the larger roads were likely used by ancient herders to direct their livestock past cultivated fields to the pastures beyond. Where the roads fade out provided clues to the amount of land under cultivation and the size of the region's agrarian economy, Wilkinson said.

Users of the ancient highways may have even been taxed, Wilkinson said, just like modern-day toll roads.

Cuneiform texts written by the Akkadians, a ruling dynasty in southern Iraq, give the names of stopping places along the ancient roads.

"You get written itineraries for this period of the Akkadians who were constantly staging (military) campaigns through this area to the Mediterranean Sea. They even campaigned through to Cyprus," Wilkinson said.


Protected by Opulent Estate, Mound Reveals Clues of Prehistoric People

By TIM WHITMIRE | Associated Press       01/27/2003


SHEVILLE, N.C. —More than a century ago, George Vanderbilt created a monument to Gilded Age opulence amid the lush Blue Ridge Mountains. In doing so, he also protected the remnants of a people whose lives were far removed from the elegance of Biltmore Estate.


For more than two years, archaeologists have excavated part of what once was a cornfield next to the Swannanoa River. What they've found is an American Indian mound that offers the most complete picture yet of the culture of a prehistoric people known as the Connestee.


Archaeologists believe that between A.D. 200 and A.D. 500 — what is known as the Middle Woodland period — the site was a major ceremonial center for the Connestee, who may have been ancestors of the Cherokee tribe.


Located near the intersection of two major American Indian trails, the mound was saved from the intrusion of modern culture by its location inside the sprawling, undeveloped Biltmore property.


The estate is a national historic landmark that covers 8,000 acres of agricultural fields, woodlands and forested mountains, including the nation's first professionally managed forest. George Vanderbilt created it as a country retreat — the Biltmore house, built in the style of a late Gothic French chateau, has more than 250 rooms and four acres of floor space.


Vanderbilt and the people who created Biltmore for him knew they were working on land that had been previously occupied. When the estate was built, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead did rough archaeological studies of the property and gave specific instructions that no Indian remains were to be disturbed.


However, the mound being excavated now was not discovered until 1984, by an archaeologist working for the state, David Moore.


The only known similar Connestee mound lies beneath a subdivision near Canton, about 15 miles west of Asheville.


"This mound has the potential for answering the questions and writing the whole history of the time period. ... The reason we're focusing on this site is that it's so pure," said Biltmore landscape curator William Alexander.


Stan Knick, director of the Native American Resource Center at the University of North Carolina-Pembroke, said: "Any time we gain an understanding of Middle Woodland culture, then we are filling out the picture of what we know about native people in North Carolina."


What makes the 1,000-square-foot Biltmore site particularly valuable is that multiple layers of dirt are clearly stratified and distinguishable, offering clues to what occurred here at different points in the Connestee occupation.


To the archaeologists' eyes, each tonal gradation of earth — mossy green, medium brown, orange, tan, dark brown or yellow — tells a story.


The deepest layer, a yellow subsoil, represents the earliest period of occupation, when the site was home to a Connestee village, said Appalachian State University archaeologist Scott Shumate.


Archaeologists have identified nine stages of construction at the site. They've found evidence of five different earthen floors and about three dozen postholes suggesting a series of large structures, about 75 to 80 feet in diameter.


"We can say as a tentative hypothesis that this was a council house," Shumate said. "People came from all surrounding villages for important ceremonies — it was the equivalent of a county seat. Maybe this place represents the social and spiritual center for a number of villages."


Shumate said fragments of tools — mostly hunting weapons for the men and pottery and small-bladed knives for the women — have been found at the site, as well as pieces of clay figurines that may have belonged to children. Archaeologists also have found numerous fractured animal bones, some with markings that indicate they were gnawed on by other animals.


Shumate theorized that the mound could have been a venue for large feasts, where bones were thrown on the floor and trampled, and animals sneaked into the empty building later on to gnaw on the remnants.


Other artifacts found at the site point to significant trade with the Hopewell Indian culture active in southern Ohio at the same time: glossy, heat-treated flint blades; pieces of Hopewell pottery with a distinctive "rocker-stamped" design; and the cut-and-polished mandible of a gray wolf native to the upper Midwest.


Appalachian State archaeologist Larry Kimball speculates that the mandible — sawed away from the rest of the jaw, with two teeth still attached — was inserted into a human mouth as part of a shamanistic ritual in which the wearer would appear to have the teeth of a wolf.


Alexander notes the trails that intersected near the mound were the prehistoric equivalent of interstate highways. One ran roughly northwest from the South Carolina Lowcountry, passing through the Asheville area on its way through Tennessee and Kentucky to southern Ohio. The other came southwest from central Virginia through the North Carolina Piedmont and the mountains of western North Carolina, also passing through the area of present-day Asheville.


"Asheville is kind of like a prehistoric crossroads," said Brian Burgess, a staff archaeologist for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, whose reservation is about 50 miles to the city's west.


"The Middle Woodland is a time, all over the eastern United States, of great commerce, of great passing around of things," added Knick. "Most Americans have a stereotype of Indians living in isolation from each other. That isn't accurate, and it was least of all true in Middle Woodland times."


Though archaeologists have so far been unable to reconstruct an unbroken ceramic tradition that links the Connestee and the later Cherokee cultures, Burgess and Kimball believe the Connestee were ancestors to the Cherokee.


"They are the people whose culture became known to us as Cherokee," Kimball said.


More than $100,000 — including a grant from the National Geographic Society — has been spent so far on the dig. Archaeologists hope to excavate half the mound, a process that could take another decade. They plan to leave the other half undisturbed for future archaeologists who may have new technologies and different questions.

©Santa Fe New Mexican 2003


China not sure it 'discovered America'

Monday, January 27, 2003 Posted: 1558 GMT







BEIJING, China (AP) -- Forgive Gavin Menzies for feeling a little defensive.

His book, "1421: The Year China Discovered America," may be selling briskly in the United States, but his extraordinary theory that Chinese explorers reached the New World decades before Christopher Columbus is proving a tougher sell to academics -- even here in China.

"Nonsense," declares China's Zheng He Association, which celebrates the exploits of Zheng He, the very explorer Menzies says directed ships around the globe a century before Ferdinand Magellan.

But Menzies isn't fazed. "I don't see how any fair-minded person who reads the evidence can come to any other conclusion other than the Chinese did get to America before Europeans," he said in a telephone interview from New York, where he was promoting his book.

If only it were that simple.

China in the early 15th century was a great seafaring nation. No dispute there. Huge Chinese ships bearing silk, porcelain and other treasures made epic expeditions at the emperor's behest.

Commanded by the admiral Zheng He, the ships traveled from China down to Indonesia, west to India, and as far as East Africa.

But this is where Menzies departs from established history. He says he has found proof that the Chinese ships sailed on -- around the Cape of Good Hope and all the way to the Americas, with some ships even crossing the Pacific back to China.

Menzies, a former submarine commander in Britain's Royal Navy, insists not only that Chinese beat Columbus but that European explorers who reached the Americas did so with maps copied from the Chinese.

"All of the great European explorers set sail with maps showing their destinations," Menzies said.

His book, published in the United States this month, entered The New York Times' nonfiction best-seller list two weeks later at No. 8.

Menzies says he has received support for his work but concedes that some experts have expressed strong reservations. His critics argue that China's huge wooden ships couldn't have survived the rough Atlantic voyage.

Some also say Chinese and European cartography at the time was so different that the maps couldn't have been reconciled.

Others call his book "rubbish from beginning to end," Menzies acknowledges. That includes some in China, even though the book hasn't been published here.

"It's crazy talk," said Wang Xiaofu, a history professor at Peking University. "We absolutely do not accept this theory."

Many Chinese authors have presented similar theories over the years. Some even argue that Chinese settled the Americas 3,000 years ago, Wang said. But most tales mix fact and legend.

"In ancient times, there were a lot of fairy stories," he said.

Still, legends of Chinese supremacy underpin the country's fierce nationalism.

Sinophiles like to point out that Chinese invented everything from fireworks to spaghetti and made significant contributions to modern mathematics, agriculture and astronomy.

"China discovered America first? I already knew that," said a Beijing store clerk who gave only her family name, Han. "China has been a country of advanced culture since ancient times."

Others aren't so sure. "I read about this theory in a newspaper, but I don't believe it," said Li Xuehui, a 30-year-old office worker. In ancient times, she said, "they didn't have the concept that the world was round."

At Peking University, archaeologist Lin Meicun says that in 20 years of studying ancient Chinese migration, he has found no convincing signs of China's early settlement of the Americas. Such talk, he said, "is not science. It's science fiction."

Menzies, who lives in London, had sailed the routes of Columbus, Magellan and other European explorers when he was a naval officer.

He writes that his knowledge of maps and using the stars for navigation led to his theory, and that his research took him to 120 countries and every major port of the late Middle Ages.

He is hardly the first to challenge the story of discovering America.

There is evidence of Viking settlements in North America 500 years before Columbus. And humans are believed to have walked from Asia across the Bering Strait when it was covered with ice to become American Indians.

Columbus' achievement was not so much to discover America as to open it to European conquest and competition to settle the New World.

And China, by the middle of the 15th century, had isolated itself. Its treasure-bearing ships were summoned back, and the emperor forbade overseas travel. China had halted all exploration, leaving the world to Europe.