Scientist use DNA from Hair to Produce Image of Neolithic Man

A team of scientists and researchers have decoded the DNA found in preserved human hair from a Stone Age man that lived in Western Greenland and have used this data to produce an image of his facial features.

The research team led by Morten Rasmussen of the Zoological Museum in Copenhagen, Denmark, analysed hair buried in the snow in Greenland.  The remarkable state of preservation enabled the scientists to map the genome and establish certain characteristics of this individual who lived 4,000 years ago.

The hair, from a male has enabled the researchers to produce an image of this human from ancient history – he is known as Saqqaq man, the name given to the Paleo-Eskimo culture and people whose remains and artefacts have been found in this region.  He has been nicknamed “Inuk” by the research team.

Say Hello to Saqqaq Man

Picture Credit: Nuka Godfredsen

The scientists believe that Saqqaq man had dark brown eyes, dark brown hair, wide teeth and dry earwax, similar to Mongoloid features seen in many Asian communities today.  The hair was found amongst other small items of debris and it has been speculated that the discovery site was the place that our Stone Age man decided to get his hair cut.  The swatch of hair was so thick when it was first discovered it was labelled as hair from a bear and not investigated any further.

This discovery also sheds new light on the settlement of North America by showing there was a hitherto unsuspected migration of people across the continent, from Siberia to Greenland, some 5,500 years ago.

This Stone Age Greenlander and his genome has helped to establish that he was related to the Chukchis, people who live at the easternmost tip of Siberia.  Saqqaq man’s ancestors split apart from Chukchis some 5,500 years ago, according to genetic calculations, implying that the Saqqaq people’s ancestors must have travelled across the northern edges of North America until they reached Greenland.

No traces of the Saqqaq people have been found to date in North America, during this time, the very end of the Neolithic, there was no land bridge between Siberia and Alaska, but the Saqqaq people may have crossed into the Americas travelling over the winter sea ice.

The Saqqaq man’s genome is so complete that the Danish researchers have been able to reconstruct his probable appearance and susceptibility to disease from the genetic information in his genome. They conclude that he would have had brown eyes because of variations, at four positions along his DNA, that are associated with brown eye colour in East Asians.

He has the East Asian version of a gene known as EDAR, which endows people with hair that is thicker than that of most Europeans and Africans. Another gene suggests that he would have had dry earwax, as do Asians and Native Americans, not the wet earwax of other ethnic groups.  Ironically, since this person has been recreated using strands of hair, one element of the genome recovered hints that this man may have been prone to baldness in later life.

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