7,000-year-old Indonesian woman reshapes views on early humans

Genetic traces in the body of a young woman who died 7,000 years ago have provided the first clue that mixing between early humans in Indonesia and those from faraway Siberia took place much earlier than previously thought.

Theories about early human migration in Asia could be transformed by the research published in the scientific journal Nature in August, after analysis of the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), or the genetic fingerprint, of the woman who was given a ritual burial in an Indonesian cave, according to the Reuters news agency which reported these findings on Wednesday.

“There is the possibility that the Wallacea region could have been a meeting point of two human species, between the Denisovans and early homo sapiens,” said Basran Burhan, an archaeologist from Australia’s Griffith University.

Burhan, one of the scientists who participated in the research, was referring to the region of Indonesia that includes South Sulawesi, where the body, buried with rocks in its hands and on the pelvis, was found in the Leang Pannige cave complexes.

The Denisovans were a group of ancient humans named after a cave in Siberia where their remains were first identified in 2010. Scientists understand little about them, and even the details of their appearance are not widely known.

The DNA from Besse, as the researchers named the young woman in Indonesia, using the term for a newborn baby girl in the regional Bugis language, is one of the few well-preserved specimens found in the tropics.

It showed that while she was descended from the Austronesian people common to Southeast Asia and Oceania she also had Denisovan genetic traces, the scientists said.

“Genetic analyses show that this pre-Neolithic forager … shares most genetic drift and morphological similarities with present-day Papuan and Indigenous Australian groups,” they said in the paper.

The remains are currently stored at a university in the city of Makassar in South Sulawesi.

Until recently, scientists thought North Asian people such as the Denisovans only arrived in Southeast Asia about 3,500 years ago.

Besse’s DNA changes theories about such patterns of early human migration and may also offer insights into the origins of Papuans and Indigenous Australian people who share Denisovan DNA.

“Theories about migration will change, as theories about race will also change,” said Iwan Sumantri, a lecturer at Hasanuddin University in South Sulawesi, who is also involved in the project.

Besse’s remains provide the first sign of Denisovans among Austronesians, who are Indonesia’s oldest ethnic grouping, he added.

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