Ancient Nepal Population Genetics: Human Migration and Adaptation in Extreme Environments    

Since prehistory, the Himalayan mountain range has presented a formidable barrier to population migration, while at the same time its transverse valleys have long served as conduits for trade and exchange. This project seeks to reconstruct the population history of the Himalayan arc by generating genome-wide genetic data from prehistoric ACA populations.

Ancient DNA was recovered in specialized clean room facilities at the University of Oklahoma. 
Photo Credit: Christina Warinner

3,000-year-old tooth from the site of Chokhopani has yielded the highest coverage (7x) ancient East Asian human genome to date.
Photo Credit: Andrew Ozga and Christina Warinner

Professional mountain climbers Pete Athans and Ted Hesser head out to excavate the Samdzong cliff tombs.
Photo Credit: Christina Warinner

Field lab for analyzing and cataloging skeletal remains from the Samdzong cliff tombs excavated in the nearby mountains.
Photo Credit: Christina Warinner

Accessing high altitude sites requires traveling across rough terrain, including over, through, and around river drainages.
Photo Credit: Christina Warinner

Local villagers assist with the identification of 1,500-year-old artifacts recovered from prehistoric cliff tombs at the site of Samdzong, Nepal. 
Photo Credit: Christina Warinner

The village of Samdzong, located at the farthest northern extent of the Mustang, bordering on Tibet. Nearby cliff tombs have provided a unique glimpse into the lives of the people who lived here more than 1,500 years ago.
Photo Credit: Christina Warinner

The cold and dry conditions of the Himalayan sites have resulted in extraordinary ancient DNA preservation. In some cases, >50% of the DNA recovered from prehistoric skeletal remains is endogenous.
Photo Credit: Christina Warinner

Thousands of man-made caves dot the Himalayan landscape. Since prehistory, these caves have been used as tombs, dwellings, and apartments.
Photo Credit: Christina Warinner

Archaeologists hike the final stretch of an ancient Himalayan mountain pass to access the prehistoric site of Samdzong, Nepal, located just a few kilometers from the Tibetan border.
Photo Credit: Christina Warinner

Prehistoric Himalayan settlements are remote and only accessible today only by horse and on foot.
Photo Credit: Christina Warinner

Since prehistory, the Himalayan mountain range has presented a formidable barrier to population migration, while at the same time its transverse valleys have long served as conduits for trade and exchange. Yet, despite the long-term economic and cultural importance of Himalayan trade routes, little is known about the region’s peopling and early population history. Focusing on the Annapurna Conservation Area (ACA) of Nepal, this project seeks to reconstruct the population history of the Himalayan arc by generating genome-wide genetic data from prehistoric ACA individuals dating to three distinct cultural periods ranging in time from the earliest known human settlements (ca. 3150 BP) to the establishment of the Tibetan Empire (ca. 1250 BP). Considering the pivotal role played by the Himalayan high transverse valleys in connecting far-flung Eurasian populations, as well as the environmental challenges the Himalayas impose on their inhabitants (e.g., extreme cold stress and hypoxia), this study has deep implications for reconstructing human prehistoric migration history, understanding biocultural adaptation to local environments, and informing future genetic archaeology studies.

Related Publications

Jeong C, Ozga AT, Witonsky D, Malmstrom H, Edlund H, Hofman CA, Hagan RW, Jakobsson M, Lewis CM, Aldenderfer M, Di Rienzo A, Warinner C*. Long-term genetic stability and a high altitude East Asian origin for the peoples of the high valleys of the Himalayan arc. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 113(27):7485-7490.

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