DNA Match Solves Ancient Mystery

At some time in ancient Chinese history a powerful nation—the Qidan in what is now Inner Mongolia—simply disappeared. Where did these people go? A question that has perplexed scholars for generations may now be solved thanks to DNA.

Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) and Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences (CAMS) and others from Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region have concluded that the modern-day Daur people have a genetic match to the Qidan of ancient China, making them possible descendants of the Qidan people.

One of 56 ethnic groups in China with a population of some 121,500, the Daur today mainly live in Inner Mongolia, Heilongjiang and Xinjiang where they traditionally have engaged in agriculture and hunting, but now also maintain their own industries.

Liu Fengzhu, a researcher with the Nationalities Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences which first began using DNA technology in its research in 1995, in a recent telephone interview talked about the discovery.

The research team first identified Qidan tombs from inscriptions on memorial tablets. From the Yelu Yu family tombs, they extracted DNA from the skull and teeth as well as carpal bone from Qidan woman corpse. At the same time, blood samples of Daur, Ewenki, Mongol and Han people in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region were collected. From the blood samples, the researchers extracted DNA.

After sequence testing, they concluded that people of Daur ethnic group are all descendants of Qidan nationality.

Researchers also found possible links to the Qidan in other regions. They collected blood samples of the people with surnames of A, Mang and Jiang and other ethnic groups in Yunnan Province, who previously had claimed themselves descendants of Qidan rather than the ethnic groups such as Blang and Yi with which they were categorized on the founding of the People’s Republic of China more than 50 years ago.

"We found that the people in Yunnan Province with surnames of A, Mang and Jiang have similar patrilineal origins with Daur, so we identified them as descendants of Qidan, too," Liu said.

The more than 100,000 people with surnames of A, Mang and Jiang who live mainly in Baoshan and Ruili districts of southwest Yunnan were particularly pleased that the DNA test substantiated their earlier claims.

Qidan was a nomadic tribe in ancient north China, living on fishing and hunting. They came into power in the last years of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) as people from central uplands who brought with them advanced agricultural and manufacturing technologies. In the year 916, Yeluabaoji, the chief of the Qidan nationality, became the first emperor of the Qidan State. The Qidan created their own written characters and had an official name of "Liao Dynasty (916-1125)," when many ethnic groups banded together.

Records about the Qidan nationality suddenly stopped in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), together with its culture, and what happened to them has remained a matter of speculation.

Liu Fengzhu believes the Qidan people were scattered through war, which explains the presence of their descendants in different areas of China. Liu said the Qidan, like many other groups, would have faced recruitment as soldiers by the Mongols in the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) as they established the Great Mongol Empire which stretched over Europe and Asia.

“Some continued to live in a big group, such as Daur, so they are preserved. Some were assimilated by the people where they came live, just like ice in the sea. But those in Yunnan Province managed to keep the memory of the original ethnic group.”

Actually, the fate of the Qidan is not so unusual, Liu said. Similar cases can be found among other minority groups. For example, some Uygyr people (a major ethnic group of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region) now live in Taoyuan County of Hunan Province.

(china.org.cn by Li Jinhui 08/02/2001)

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