Islanders offer a glimpse of ancient explorers of Asia
The distinctive appearance of the Andaman Islanders has fascinated anthropologists since Victorian times.
Hunter-gatherers living in the Bay of Bengal, the islanders are short, dark skinned and have tight curly hair - making them physically very different from other populations living in Asia.
The same features are seen in several other isolated groups scattered across Southern Asia. This has led some to speculate that they may be closely related to African pygmies, or, more plausibly, that they are descendants of the first inhabitants of Asia.
The Andamanese remained relatively isolated from the rest of the world until a British penal colony was established in the islands after the independence war of 1857. The islanders had earned a reputation for ferocity, mostly because of their violent resistance to foreign intrusions. Today just four tribes remain, with a combined population of 400 to 500 people. Some have kept their hunter-gatherer way of life; others have become settled. Oxford University researchers have now analysed mutations in mitochondrial DNA - the genetic component that is only passed on from mothers - from the islanders. Most people in Asia carry a type of mitochondrial DNA known as haplogroup M, which has several subgroups and can be traced back 60,000 years.
The Andamanese were shown to belong to this M group - and more particularly, a subgroup called M2 which is about 53,000 years old.
In a paper published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, the Oxford team shows that the Andamanese are no more related to Africans than any other Eurasian populations. The islanders may be linked to surviving hunter-gatherer groups in mainland India. Many of these groups live in southern India, suggesting that Asia was originally settled by a coastal route within the past 100,000 years.
This route is likely to have been along the coasts of what are now Pakistan and India. Prof Alan Cooper, director of the Henry Wellcome Ancient Biomolecules Centre at Oxford University, who led the study, said: “The findings mark a significant step forward in our understanding of the nature and timing of human settlement of the world outside Africa.
“It may even give us a glimpse of what these ancient explorers looked like genetically.”Prof Chris Stringer, of the Natural History Museum, said: “The findings suggest that the similarities between these now isolated populations of Asia are not coincidental and that these peoples really do share a common history. “The presence of M2 in significant proportions among the more European looking caste populations of India indicates that many of these early settlers were absorbed into later population expansions.” —DT