Author: Elisha Kayne
The Ainu live primarily amongst the forests and mountains of Hokkaido, Japan. Their distinct culture, religion and language sets them apart from other Japanese populations, yet they have managed to protect their unique heritage despite thousands of years of political change. Over the years, the mysterious origins of the Ainu have been hotly debated by geneticist, anthropologists and historians. Many have suggested a possible link between the Ainu and the ancient Jomon, which populated the Japanese islands for almost 10,000 years, stretching from the Neolithic age until around 300 BCE. In the past, evidence for such a connection was largely dependent on archeological samples and cultural similarities. Now, thanks to advancements in genetic research, science has provided incredible new insight into the indigenous Ainu of modern day Hokkaido and their Jomon lineage.
Ancient Hokkaido Jomon DNA
In 2011, a genetic study concluded that the ancient Hokkaido Jomon people of Japan had moderate to high frequencies of the mitochondrial DNA haplogroups N9b, G1b and M7a2 (Tanaka, 2011). The research seems to suggest that the Jomon were descended in some degree from Paleolithic Siberians who migrated south from former Beringia sometime around the end of the last glacial maximum, 22,000 years ago. The mtDNA subhaplogroup N9b was found among almost 65% of the Jomon samples. Other subgroups of N9 are found among modern day populations of Japan, Korea, Uyghur and China, as well as Russia, Belarus, Poland, and the Czech Republic. G1b, which was found among 11% of the samples, can be seen among members in communities near the Sea of Okhots, and in the Republic of Sakha. Though mtDNA haplogroup M7a2 was discovered in lower frequencies among the Hokkaido Jomon, it was present in 1.9% of the population. M7a2 is similarly common among the Yakut, Buryat and other groups living throughout regions of Siberia today.
Edo Period Ainu Haplogroups
Though multiple studies have been conducted to determine the origins of today’s Ainu, most DNA studies focused on a group of 51 people living in Biratori Town, Hokkaido, despite having thousands of Ainu living in other locations throughout Japan. In addition, the Meiji government encouraged heavy migration from the Japanese mainland to Hokkaido from 1869 forward. Therefore, because of frequent intermarriage between the Ainu of that region and individuals from southern areas of Japan, it has been difficult to determine which genes were inherited from Ainu or other ethnic Japanese lineages. To overcome this challenge, a recent study performed genetic analysis on 94 Ainu skeletons from the Edo era, a period spanning from 1603 to 1868 (Adachie, 2017). During this time, most of the Ainu population remained relatively isolated from the genetic influence of neighboring groups, and therefore the DNA information received could provide further insight into the origins of the Ainu. Among the samples, they discovered that 20% contained mtDNA belonging to the N9b haplogroup, while more than 9% had inherited G1b mtDNA and slightly more than 2% of the skeletons contained M7a2. These haplogroups were also found in the previous Hokkaido Jomon study, proving a direct genetic connection between the ancient Jomon peoples and the Edo period Ainu population.
Modern Ainu Genetic Connections
The 2017 Edo Ainu study also reported information concerning the haplogroups found among modern Ainu populations. While M7a2 was missing from the genetic samples provided, mtDNA haplogroup N9b was present in almost 8% of the participants and G1b occurred at 15.7%. While there have been some genetic changes among the Ainu communities of today, new research is showing that they still share many similarities with both their Edo period Ainu and ancient Jomon ancestors.
Adachi, N., Shinoda, K., Umetsu, K., Kitano, T., Matsumura, H., Fujiyama, R., Sawada, J., Tanaka, M. (2011). Mitochondrial DNA analysis of Hokkaido Jomon Skeletons: Remnants of archaic maternal lineages at the southwestern edge of former Beringia. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 146 (3). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21953438
Adachi, N., Kakuda, T., Takahashi, R., Kanzawa-Kiriyama, H., Shinoda, K. (2017). Ethnic derivation of the Ainu inferred from ancient mitochondrial DNA data. American Journal of Physical Anthopology, 165(1), 139-148. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5765509/