Ancient Origins Iraq Tour Banner

Ancient Origins Iraq Tour Mobile Banner

The reproduced portrait of the Red Deer Cave People or Mengziren. Source: Xueping Ji / CC BY-SA

Pleistocene Fossil DNA Suggests Native Americans’ East Asian Roots


Genome sequencing of a human Late Pleistocene Fossil in southwest China dating back around 14,000 years is helping shed light on the ancestry of the very first Americans. The mystery surrounding the human fossils found in a cave has been resolved in a new study published in Current Biology, which posits that the hominin belonged to an extinct “maternal branch” of modern humans. The study additionally sheds further light on the mysteries of human origins, suggesting this particular branch of modern humans potentially contributed to the origin of Native Americans.

The lateral view of the Pleistocene skull fossil unearthed from Red Dear Cave. Source: Xueping Ji / CC BY-SA

The lateral view of the Pleistocene skull fossil unearthed from Red Dear Cave. Source: Xueping Ji / CC BY-SA

Pleistocene Fossil - A Previously Unknown Human Species?

The cranium belonged to an individual known as Mengzi Ren (MZR) and was unearthed in 1989 from Red Deer Cave, Yunnan province, along with her thigh bone. The origins of the skull have been a subject of intense scrutiny and debate within the scientific community since due to its shape which raised questions as to whether it an archaic human, like a Neanderthal or Denisovan, or a member of the modern human species. The cave also revealed more than 30 other human fossils, and animal fossils of the red deer, macaque, and black bear too.

For a while, the skull was attributed to a hybrid population of archaic and modern humans by human evolution experts due to the fact that the skull shape was closer to that of a Neanderthal, while the brain size appeared to be smaller than a modern human. There were suggestions that this could be a previously unknown and undiscovered human species that co-existed alongside our own named the Red Deer People, after the cave in which they were found. Now, however, it seems that the mystery surrounding this rare Pleistocene fossil has now been solved.

“Combined with published data, we detected a clear genetic stratification in the ancient southern populations of East Asia and Southeast Asia, and some degree of south-versus-north divergency during the Late Pleistocene,” highlighted the paper. “The MZR was identified as a southern East Asian with genetic continuity with present-day populations.” The team used ancient DNA, sequencing a fraction of the total genome – a 100 million DNA bases, which helped enough to establish the individual’s species-level identity.

The excavation site of Maludong (Red Deer Cave), where the Pleistocene fossil was unearthed. (Xueping Ji / CC BY-SA)

The excavation site of Maludong (Red Deer Cave), where the Pleistocene fossil was unearthed. (Xueping Ji / CC BY-SA)

Ancient DNA and the Native American Link

The results of the physical anthropological research revealed that the owner of the skull was a young woman, 155 cm (5.08 ft) in height, and weighing 46 kilos (101 lbs). She was a hunter-gatherer, according to Zhang Xiaoming, the paper's first author, also a research fellow at the Kunming Institute of Zoology under the Chinese Academy of Sciences. According to CNN, radiocarbon dating on the sediments of the fossils from 2008 indicated their age, which coincided with a period in human history when humans had migrated to many different parts of the world already.

“Ancient DNA technique is a really powerful tool,” says Bing Su, a researcher at the Kunming Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “It tells us quite definitively that the Red Deer Cave people were modern humans instead of an archaic species, such as Neanderthals or Denisovans, despite their unusual morphological features. It was a really exciting moment. It is difficult to find ancient DNA in such a sample. After three years of trying to extract DNA from around 100 spots on the cranium, we found ancient DNA that we could sequence.”

The genome of these fossils was compared to those of people from around the world, revealing that the bones belonged to an individual with a link to the East Asian ancestry of Native Americans. This led to the hypothesis that some of these southern East Asian people must have travelled through eastern China and Japan, along the respective coastlines, reaching as far as Siberia.

From here, they crossed the Bering Strait through the Beringia land bridge, due to low ocean levels prior to the mass melting of ice that occurred roughly 11,700 years ago. They would cross over to modern day North America, becoming the first people to arrive in the New World. The surviving decedents are now found in East Asia, the Indo-China peninsula, and the Southeast Asian islands, with their ancestors possessing rich genetic and morphological diversity.

Su explains that additional data will help paint a more complete picture of our migrating ancestors as the team plans to sequence more ancient human DNA from fossils. They plan to center their focus around southern East Asia and look at even older fossils than the Red Deer Cave finds. This will help in understanding human adaptability, such as variations in skin color in response to sunlight exposure. Such conclusions could help explain the visible differences in human beings today.

Ancient DNA Origins

Top image:  The reproduced portrait of the Red Deer Cave People or Mengziren. Source: Xueping Ji / CC BY-SA

By Sahir Pandey



I had been taught decades ago that Native American Nations were East Asians that had traveled across the Bering Sea land bridge as early as 30,000 years ago and populated the Americas as they migrated South. More recently I have learned that peoples of Europe were in North America much earlier than originally believed. Meshkiangkasher, what is the lie that is being propagated and what is the truth as you know it to be?

I long for the day when they’ll stop being called “Native” or “Indigenous”. Too long has that flimsy lie been propagated and protected.

Sahir Pandey was correct in the beginning of this article, there is still much yet to be learned. I am confused though about the end where skin color is mentioned. Let me know when fossil DNA can prove skin color. Clearly that seems to be of great importance to some researchers. I call so much speculation BS. In fact even the whole Bering Strait theory is just theory too. It makes one wonder just what the agenda of those who finance science is. Let us study the natural evidence with an open mind, minus the racism and politics.

There's a fair bit to learn about the peopling of the Americas yet. A European migration possibility is still in the mix as well.

Hi All,

Indigenous People's in The America's traced back too Asia apparently China?

The Sovereign Nation's are going to love that News.

Sahir's picture


I am a graduate of History from the University of Delhi, and a graduate of Law, from Jindal University, Sonepat. During my study of history, I developed a great interest in post-colonial studies, with a focus on Latin America. I... Read More

Next article