Dental morphological evidence for European admixture in Mongolia and western China

Lee, C. and Scott, G. R. (2011), Brief communication: Two-rooted lower Canines—A European trait and sensitive indicator of admixture across Eurasia. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 146: 481–485. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.21585
With the exception of Carabelli's trait, the European dentition is better known for the morphological traits that it does not exhibit rather than the ones that it does. One root trait, however, runs counter to the characterization of reduced and simplified European crowns and roots. Although a rare trait in general, two-rooted lower canines are much more common in Europeans than in any other regional grouping and, given adequate sample sizes, can be useful in evaluating gene flow between Europeans and neighboring groups. In European samples, two-rooted lower canines consistently exhibit frequencies of 5–8%. In our sample from northern Spain, the trait attains a frequency of almost 10%. In contrast, in Sub-Saharan Africans the trait is virtually unknown while in Asian and Asian-derived populations, it varies between 0.0 and 1.0%. Here we show that two-rooted canine frequencies for new migrants along the western frontiers of China and Mongolia ranged from 0–4%. These data suggest European-derived populations migrated into western China (Xinjiang Province) and Mongolia (Bayan Olgii Aimag) sometime during the late Bronze age (1000–400 BCE). [. . .]

One of the major concerns of Alexandersen (1963) regarding two-rooted lower canines revolved around the issue of ‘‘atavism.’’ This term, rarely used today, begs the question of whether or not this double rooted form was common at one time, then disappeared, only to reappear sometime later. Swindler (1995) notes that ‘‘the deciduous and permanent canines in the majority of living primates have a single root.’’ This suggests that two-rooted lower canines are not the ancestral condition in anthropoids or hominoids. Rather, the phenotype is a derived condition, found primarily in recent human populations distributed across Western Eurasia.

The presence of the two-rooted canines in East Asia may provide some clue as to the eastward migration of new populations into China and Mongolia. The largest numbers of individuals with this trait are concentrated along the western and northern frontiers of China and Mongolia. Archaeological excavations support the large scale movement of people into this area during the Bronze age (ca. 2200 BCE–400 BCE). Burial artifacts and settlement patterns suggest cultural and technological ties to the Afanasevo culture in Siberia, which in turn is linked archaeologically, linguistically, and genetically with the Indo-European Tocharian populations that appear to have migrated to the Tarim Basin ca. 4,000 years ago (Ma and Sun, 1992; Ma and Wang, 1992; Mallory and Mair, 2000; Romgard, 2008; Keyser et al., 2009; Li et al., 2010).

The appearance of a new population on the western frontier also supports the findings of previous research in cranial metrics, dental nonmetrics, and DNA. Using cranial metrics and archaeological dating, Han (1994) hypothesized the earliest large-scale migration into western China occurred during the early Bronze age (2000 BCE) from Central Asia or southern Siberia. Dental nonmetric data also support multiple migrations into western China (Xinjiang Province) from Central Asia during the Bronze age to Iron age (Lee, 2007; Zhang, 2010). mtDNA studies on archaeological and modern population samples from Xinjiang Province show heterogeneous Asian and European genetic signatures dating from the Bronze age to the present (Yao et al., 2004; Cui et al., 2010; Zhang et al., 2010; Li et al., 2010).

As the frequency of two-rooted canines is highest in European samples and low to nonexistent in Asians, we propose this trait was introduced into East Asia by Indo- European speaking groups or their affines crossing the western frontier of China and Mongolia. Further data are needed to clarify aspects of these population movements, including the identity of the migrants, along with the number, routes, and timing of the migrations.

Although two-rooted lower canines cannot offer the precision of DNA in evaluating the ancestry in individual skulls, this trait is a sensitive indicator of admixture wherever Europeans come in contact with Asian or African populations. As this distinctive trait can be scored with relative ease in large samples, it provides a useful supplemental tool in discerning gene flow between distantly related populations going back many millennia.

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