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DNA from bones of 7,000-year-old teenager reveal previously unknown group of humans

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A teenage hunter-gatherer who died more than 7,000 years ago has revealed the existence of a previously unknown group of humans.

The distinct group of humans have never been found elsewhere in the world, a study published last week in science journal Nature said.

Scientists had found and excavated the bones of the 17- to 18-year-old female in 2015 from a limestone cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. From the bones, scientists were able to extract DNA which, upon analysis, shared similarities with present-day Papuan and Indigenous Australian groups but represented a previously unknown divergent human lineage which split from those populations around 37,000 years ago.

“We have discovered the first ancient human DNA in the island region between Asia and Australia, known as ‘Wallacea’, providing new insight into the genetic diversity and population history of early modern humans in this little understood part of the world,” study coauthor Adam Brumm, professor of Griffith University's Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution told CNN via email.

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Modern humans first crossed through Wallacea on their way to the Australian continent at least 50,000 years ago, and possibly up to 65,000 years ago, the researchers said, but the route these humans took is currently unknown.

The skeleton found in 2015 were buried in the cave 7,2000 years ago and is the first largely complete and well-preserved skeleton of the Toalean culture, a mysterious group of prehistoric hunter-gatherers, Brumm told CNN.

“The ‘Toaleans’ is the name archaeologists have given to a rather enigmatic culture of prehistoric hunter-gatherers that lived in the forested plains and mountains of South Sulawesi between around 8,000 years ago until roughly the fifth century AD,” Brumm said.

“They made highly distinctive stone tools (including tiny, finely crafted arrowheads known as ‘Maros points’) that are not found anywhere else on the island or in wider Indonesia,” he added.

The skeleton’s DNA revealed that the woman was descended from the first modern humans to enter Wallacea thousands of years earlier, but also contained clues to a previously unknown group of ancient humans.

The teenager shared genetic ancestry with a distinct group from Asia that likely arrived after the colonization of Australia, as indigenous Australians and Papuans don’t share the same connection, Brumm explained to CNN.

“Previously, it was thought that the first time people with Asian genes entered Wallacea was around 3,500 years ago when Austronesian-speaking farmers from Neolithic Taiwan swept down through the Philippines and into Indonesia,” he said.

“It suggests that there might have been a distinct group of modern humans in this region that we really had no idea about up until now, as archaeological sites are so scarce in Wallacea and ancient skeletal remains are rare.”

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