DNA extracted by Chinese scientists from the brain of a woman who lived more than two millennia ago will provide valuable clues to the ancient world.
The woman's remains were excavated from a Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) tomb located in Beijing's western outskirts in August 2000.
During the excavation of the Laoshan Han Tomb, a piece of fist-sized "dried mud" dropped from the skull of the tomb's female occupant. It turned out to be brain tissue from which Chinese scientists, for the first time, have extracted ancient DNA.
Using 3D technology, physical anthropology and DNA technology, paleontologists with the Frontier Archaeology Center of northeast China's Jilin University and the Beijing Research Institute of Cultural Heritage have worked together in their search for clues to the blood lines of the Han Dynasty nobles.
"DNA studies have shown the empress of the feudal prince of the Western Han Dynasty, who was about 30 years old, belonged to the Mongoloid race in East Asia. The result accords with conclusions made with 3D technology and physical anthropology," said Zhu Hong, director of the Frontier Archaeology Study Center with Jilin University.
It was this research that paved the way for a new study method in molecular biology which enables DNA to be extracted from remnants of brain tissue, said Pan Qifeng, a paleontologist with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
"I had never met brain tissue of an ancient human in my 20 years of archaeological work, though I had studied thousands of corpses of ancient humans," said Zhu Hong.
"It's lucky that scientists extracted DNA from the brain, though they failed to obtain DNA from bones or teeth," added Professor Zhou Hui, director of the archaeological DNA laboratory of Jilin University.
Equipped with China's first professional DNA research laboratory, the Frontier Archaeology Research Center of Jilin University has set up a DNA database on ancient humans and to date has successfully completed DNA studies on the bones of ancient humans found in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and Qinghai Province.
Archaeological DNA studies could help towards building a gene database of ancient humans which will help explain human evolution and migration, said Zhu Hong.
(People’s Daily May 21, 2003)