Ancient DNA reveals intriguing details about a sixth-century Chinese emperor

By | March 28, 2024

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Ancient DNA recovered from the remains of a sixth-century Chinese emperor who ruled during the country’s Dark Ages has shed some light on what the leader may have looked like.

Emperor Wu ruled China as part of the Northern Zhou Dynasty from 560 to 580 and is credited with unifying the northern part of ancient China during a particularly chaotic period.

Archaeologists found his tomb in northwestern China in 1996. In a study published Thursday in the journal Current Biology, researchers analyzed genetic material from his remains, including a nearly complete skull. They collected information about his appearance, health and origins.

The emperor belonged to a little-studied nomadic group called the Xianbei who lived in an area that is today Mongolia and northern and northeastern China. The genome analysis, derived from DNA, suggested that Wu had brown eyes, black hair and a dark to medium complexion.

“Some scholars said that the “Our analysis shows that Emperor Wu had typical East or Northeast Asian facial features.”

The authors said they hoped ancient DNA could shed light on Wu’s cause of death. According to the research, the emperor died suddenly at the age of 36. Explanations for his death put forward in historical texts include illness and intentional poisoning.

The team could find no definitive proof of why he died. However, the researchers said they had discovered a genetic susceptibility to stroke, which could explain some of the symptoms historians have attributed to Wu: drooping eyelids, blindness and an impaired gait.

Archaeologists are increasingly using ancient DNA techniques to extract information from bones, teeth, artifacts and cave dirt.

Wu facial reconstruction

The team used genetic information from the remains, including Wu’s skull, to imagine what he would have looked like, creating a 3D facial reconstruction that humanizes a little-known figure.

“The study … offers intriguing insights into the historical figure of Emperor Wu, with the facial approach presented appearing convincingly realistic,” says Tobias Houlton, lecturer in craniofacial identification and forensic imaging at the University of Dundee, who has worked on facial reconstructions of historical figures, via e-mail. He was not involved in the investigation.

“Notably, it is not possible to predict (skin, hair and eye) color details from skeletal remains alone, making genetic analysis an illuminating tool.”

However, the study did not provide enough detail on other morphological variables, such as skin thickness, muscle and fat lining the facial bones, placement and projection of the eyeball, eyebrow shape, nose width and lip height, factors that could be included. in facial reconstruction, Houlton said.

The Xianbei: a rarely studied group

More interesting than the emperor’s appearance was his Xianbei origins, said Jeong Hoongwon, an associate professor at Seoul National University’s School of Biological Sciences. Jeong, who was not part of the new research, has studied the Xiongnu, a separate nomadic empire that pushed China to build its Great Wall.

The genetic analysis showed that Emperor Wu married ethnic Han Chinese, China’s current dominant ethnic group.

“I think it is important to understand the elite group he belonged to, which emerged as a merger of Xianbei and local Han elite groups, and not himself,” Jeong said via email. “This group has rarely been studied in genetics and this study provides one of the first such cases.”

Jeong compared the Xianbei and Xiongnu to Germanic tribes such as the Franks and Goths who occupied parts of the Roman Empire when it collapsed.

He said it was notable that Emperor Wu had a relatively high percentage of ancestors from a group known as the ancient North Asians, as the Xianbei had been in contact with the dominant Han Chinese for centuries at that point.

Wu ruled during a period in Chinese history that is often considered a “dark age of chaos,” when dynasties rose and fell rapidly, says Bryan Miller, assistant professor of Central Asian art and archeology at the University of Michigan. Miller, who was not involved in the research, said it was a period in history that warranted more research.

“It’s interesting to see the genetic study, but none of the findings from this genetic study are at all surprising,” Miller said. “We know that the great rulers married, but what about the political substratum – to what extent were the lower elites allowed to marry?

“I think genetics could really tell an interesting story there.”

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