Freshly obtained DNA from the remains of a woman who lived in Japan between 3,500 and 3,800 years ago is helping scientists piece together the story of the prehistoric people who inhabited the region during the Jōmon period.
As reported by Asahi Shimbun, the work was based on DNA obtained from a molar tooth discovered in the skull of a female at the Funadomari archaeological site on Rebun Island off the coast of Hokkaido, the northernmost main island of Japan. After sequencing the whole genome from this sample, a research team led by the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo has come to realize that the Jōmon people had some distinctly different characteristics to the modern-day Japanese population; they were fairly dark skinned with brown eyes, freckles, and frizzy hair.
A deep dive into this woman’s genome shows that the people were genetically close to native populations of the Russian Far East, the Korean Peninsula, and indigenous Taiwanese people.
The work has also provided some new insights into the lifestyle of the Jōmon culture. For one, she appears to have a relatively rare genetic variation that allows people to digest and metabolize high-fat diets. Interestingly, we find this variant in the majority of populations that live in the Arctic who, by no coincidence, eat a diet with lots of blubbery sea mammals, such as walrus, seal, and whale. This is variant is almost only ever found in the Arctic population and remains.
She would have also had a pretty strong tolerance for booze due to a particular gene variation, which is not that common in East Asian populations.
Perhaps most peculiar of all, the woman would have most likely had wet, orangey earwax. Why is this so unusual, you might ask? The majority of people of East Asian descent have a gene variation that creates white and flakey ear wax. However, over 97 percent of people of African and European descent have a variation that makes orange-brown wet wax. The dry wax gene is also relatively common in Native Americans, which isn’t too surprising when you consider that their ancestors migrated across the Bering Straits from Siberia in the depths of northeast Asia.
The Jōmon period, also known as Japan's Neolithic period, ran from around 10500 BCE to 300 BCE. As the Ice Age began to thaw, deciduous forests and grasslands started to flourish along the Japanese archipelago, fostering a culture of people that centered around hunting, fishing, and gathering. It was a period also marked by the development of pottery and tool-making, the style of which gives the name Jōmon. While the Jōmon was primarily a hunter-gatherer culture, they did establish some settlements and villages, which have been the subject of extensive archaeological study.