Wednesday, 27 November 2013

East meets West

A tuthree days ago, I mentioned in passing that they had dug up a woolly mammoth in sufficiently good condition, after 8000 years frozen in Siberia, to extract readable DNA sequence.  The Beloved's brother sent me a link to a NYT article about another ancient Central Asian excavation.  The burial prehistorical - about 24,000 years ago - but the excavation itself was historical, happening 50 years ago and the material had been sitting in a Petersburg Museum ever since.  This all concerns a much loved little boy about 3 years old who was buried with care and grave-goods all those years ago.  Lots of other skeletons were buried in the area as well as numerous Venus figurines of a type typical of European art of the same vintage.  Which is a little peculiar as the graves were at Mal'ta very close to Lake Baikal and thousands of km further East than the edge of Europe.  That cultural coincidence doesn't seem to have created much stir.

Eske Willerslev from Copenhagen, and colleague of Tom Gilbert the mammoth man, is an expert on the peopling of the Americas and is ever on the hunt for genetic material to try to nail down the hypothesis that the Native North Americans (NNA) really started their travels in Asia.  When Willerslev sequenced the Mal'ta child's DNA he found that it resembled nothing so much as European heritage. This was so surprising that they checked another skeleton from the same area but only 17,000 years buried and found the same tell-tale sequence. But there was a significant 'minority holding' of NNA tucked into the same genome.  This explains an anomalous quirk in the DNA profile of NNAs where some of them have a signature that is clearly European.  Previous researchers, both scientific and woo-wah, had suggested that Europeans crossed the North Atlantic in canoes 30,000 years ago but this hypothesis can now be dismissed for one which is more parsimonious.

Folks really travelled back in the palaeolithic but you don't need to evoke marathon running to account for the distances travelled.  The paleolithic itself lasted a helluva long time and if you have 24,000 years to play with you can go round the world by only moving one mile (1.6km) per year, or about the distance from our kitchen to the living room fire each day.

There is another extraordinary Europe-in-Asia story in the discovery 100 years ago of a group of  Indo-European langauges called Tocharian locked away in what is now China. The super-romantic adventurer and archaeologist Aurel Stein, whose 151st birthday was yesterday, discovered fragments of ancient manuscripts in Xinjiang, a Chinese province having borders with  Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. You can't get more Asia Central than that!  Paleolingists could sort of read the script which resembled what they knew from some Buddhist sutras.  But when they transliterated it, the sound was clearly more like Sanskrit and Greek and Irish and English than it was to any of the neighboring Turkic and Asiatic tongues.  These manuscripts were written in around 400 CE.

It is tempting to suggest that the three connexions - linguistic, cultural and genetic - between Ireland and Baikal are driven by the same migration but this would be as gross an error as having Raquel Welch fighting dinosaurs in 1 Million Years BC.  Because, just as Raquel missed the last walking dinosaur by around 64 million years, the first speakers of Proto-Indo-European PIE were striding across Eurasia 5000-8000 years ago, at least 15,000 years after the Mal'ta chap was buried.  But the idea gives us the opportunity to post a poster of Raquel Welch: I think she looks pretty fit, don't you? I'm not surprised her genes survived through the last 30,000 generations.

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