By Request: The Modern Ainu pt 1

Old photograph of an Ainu man

Most of the information easily available on the internet speaks of the Ainu in the past tense: The Ainu were hunter-gatherers; the Ainu worshiped; the Ainu were conquered. The photographic situation is similar: an image search for “Ainu” brings up a few dozen century-old photos and not much else.

But the modern Ainu, of course, do not live in the past–they live in today, primarily in the very modern city of Sapporo. The modern Ainu are not hunter-gatherers (although the entire nation of Japan remains highly dependent on fishing for its nutrition;) they are doctors and shop-keepers, office workers and artists. They go to school, keep up with modern fashions, play video games, and ride the shinkansen just like everyone else in Japan.

Wikipedia (and everyone else) estimates that about 25,000 Ainu live today in Japan, with the caveat that since the Ainu don’t always bother to mention their ancestry, there could be a couple hundred thousand who just haven’t been counted.

Due to years of inter-marrying, the vast majority of today’s Ainu are at least part Japanese. One reference I recall estimated that about 300 pure-blooded Ainu remained in 1950; another estimated that 200 remain today.

There are also some Ainu living in Russia; according to Wikipedia, about 100 Russians tried to identify as Ainu in the 2010 census, and nearly a thousand people with some degree of Ainu ancestry live in the area.

Alas for my purposes as a writer, these few remaining folks appear to be living their lives out in anthropological anonymity, rather than posting selfies tagged #RealAinu all over the internet.

The one thing everyone likes to argue about in threads about the Ainu is whether or not they look like white people.

It’s kind of dumb to fight about, since obviously Ainu look like Ainu.

Okay, okay. Don’t start a flame war. According to Wikipedia:

Cavalli-Sforza places the Ainu in his “Northeast and East Asian” genetic cluster.[42] …

Turner found remains of Jōmon people of Japan to belong to Sundadont pattern similar with the Southern Mongoloid living populations of Taiwanese aborigines, Filipinos, Indonesians, Thais, Borneans, Laotians, and Malaysians. …

Genetic testing has shown them to belong mainly to Y-haplogroup D-M55.[49] Y-DNA haplogroup D2 is found frequently throughout the Japanese Archipelago including Okinawa. The only places outside Japan in which Y-haplogroup D is common are Tibet in China and the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean.[50]

Your Y-haplogroup traces your paternal ancestry, because men (and only men) inherit their Y-chromosomes from their fathers. Your M or Mt-DNA, (short for mitochondrial DNA,) hails exclusively from your mother (and both men and women have Mt-DNA, because we all have mitochondria.)

Often when one group of people conquers another group of people, their descendants end up with Y-DNA from the conquerors and MtDNA from the conquered, but there are other ways people come together, like folks intermarrying with their neighbors.

(Presumably this study was done with relatively pure-blooded Ainu.)

The distribution of Haplogroup D-M174 is quite suggestive: Ainu, Tibetans, and Andaman Islanders. These are three (historically) highly isolated groups–one of the world’s few remaining basically uncontacted peoples, the Sentinelese, (they’ll put a spear in you if you land on their island) live in the Andaman Islands. The Tibetans, as I’ve mentioned, have inherited DNA from the Denisovans–cousins of the Neanderthals who interbred with their ancestors–that lets them breathe more easily at high altitudes than anyone else on Earth, making it rather hard for non-Tibetans move there, much less conquer and occupy it [Note: I wouldn’t be surprised if the Nepalese or other folks who also live up in the Himalayas also have the adaptation; this isn’t meant to be a discussion of modern political borders.] And the Ainu basically live on the far edge of Asian at the southern edge of Siberia–northern Japan is the snowiest populated place in the world.

“Sinodont” and “sundadont” actually refer to two different tooth shapes.

East Asian genetic tree, showing Ainu, Japanese, Koreans, etc

Tibetans and Andaman Islanders are definitely Asians–they clade with other Asians in the Greater Asian Clade–but they don’t look much alike. You wouldn’t mistake them for Caucasians, though.

Haplogroup D-M174 is believed to have evolved about 50-60-thousand years ago, presumably in Asia. This was shortly after the Out-of-Africa event, which occurred about 70,000 (or possibly 100,000 years ago [there might have been more than one OOA.]) D-M174 is so old that its “parent” haplogroup is DE, which is found in Africa and Asia.

By contrast, the mutation to the EDAR-gene which gives Han Chinese (the Asian ethnic group Americans are most familiar with) and Japanese their characteristic hair, skin, tooth shape, build, etc., (EDAR is pretty incredible in that way) only occurred 30,000 years ago–that is, the Ainu split off from other Asians 20-30 thousand years before what we think of as “the Asian look” had even evolved.

For that matter, Caucasian themselves only appear to have split off from Asians around 40,000 years ago–10,000 years before EDAR mutated, but 10-20,000 years after D-M174 arose.

Or to put it another way:

About 70,000 years ago, an intrepid band of explorers left Africa. Presumably, these people looked African, but I don’t know exactly which Africans these ancient people looked like–perhaps they didn’t really look like any modern group; perhaps they looked a lot like most Sub-Saharan Africans; perhaps they looked like the Bushmen, noted for their tawny skin tones and more “Asian” look than other Sub-Saharans. I don’t know yet.

About 60,000 years ago, the band split, and one group spread far across Asia. Their modern descendants are the Ainu, Tibetans, and Andaman Islanders.

The other group presumably hung out in central Eurasia, until about 40,000 years ago, when it definitively split. One group went west and became the Caucasians; the other became the Han.

Around 30,000 years, the distinctive EDAR mutation that gives east-Asians their “typical” appearance evolved.

Around 10,000 years ago, more or less, Europeans began getting lighter, and “whiteness” as we know it evolved.

Oki Kano, Ainu Musician

So… could the Ainu retain some traits or have never obtained some traits–like epicanthic folds at the corners of their eyes–which make them look more like their ancestral group, to which the ancestors of both Asians and Caucasians belonged? Sure. Could they have just evolved traits to deal with the extremely cold, near-Siberian environment they lived in that happened to resemble traits that evolved in European populations dealing with a similarly cold environment? Sure.

But are they Caucasians? Not even remotely.

And in my opinion, they don’t look Caucasian, at least not when their faces aren’t covered with big, bushy beards. (The modern Ainu tend to shave.) Take, for example, Oki Kano, an Ainu musician. Nothing about his appearance says, “Mysterious tribe of lost Caucasians.”

Back to Wikipedia:

In a study by Tajima et al. (2004), two out of a sample of sixteen (or 12.5%) Ainu men have been found to belong to Haplogroup C-M217, which is the most common Y-chromosome haplogroup among the indigenous populations of Siberia and Mongolia.[49] … Some researchers have speculated that this minority of Haplogroup C-M217 carriers among the Ainu may reflect a certain degree of unidirectional genetic influence from the Nivkhs, a traditionally nomadic people of northern Sakhalin and the adjacent mainland, with whom the Ainu have long-standing cultural interactions.[49]

The Nivkhs live basically next door and have a lot of cultural similarities–for example, both groups traditionally had shamanic rituals involving bears, which they raised and then sacrificed:

Nivkh Shamans also presided over the Bear Festival, a traditional holiday celebrated between January and February depending on the clan. Bears were captured and raised in a corral for several years by local women, treating the bear like a child.[34] The bear was considered a sacred earthly manifestation of Nivkh ancestors and the gods in bear form (see Bear worship). During the Festival, the bear would be dressed in a specially made ceremonial costume. It would be offered a banquet to take back to the realm of gods to show benevolence upon the clans.[29] After the banquet, the bear would be sacrificed and eaten in an elaborate religious ceremony. Often dogs were sacrificed as well. The bear’s spirit returned to the gods of the mountain ‘happy’ and would then reward the Nivkh with bountiful forests.[35]

A very similar ceremony, Iomante, is practiced by the Ainu people of Japan.

While haplogroup D-M174 shows affinity with more southerly Asian groups, like the Tibetans or Andaman Islanders, haplogroup C-M217 is found throughout northern Asia (principally Siberia) and northern North America.

To be continued…


10 thoughts on “By Request: The Modern Ainu pt 1

  1. Somewhat tangential, but what (if anything) do you make of the fact that Proto-Tibetan and Proto-Sinitic were sister languages, but Tibetans and Han are so genetically disparate?

    (Great post btw)


    • Thanks.

      Consider two Germanic languages, one spoken by black South Africans (English) and one spoken by white South Africans (Africaans)

      Language reflects conquerors more than ancestors. Conquerors don’t always leave much DNA behind, which might especially be true in a place like Tibet where the altitude selects against newcomers.


      • Okay – so you have in mind the hypothesis that a proto-Sino-Tibetan conquest that spread the language family into areas where the Sinitic conquerors simply had little genetic impact?

        Certainly possible. (I don’t know, is there a specific archaeological theory to this effect?)


      • I know very little specifically about either the Sino-Tibetan language family or the history of the local area, and I don’t want to accidentally step on any toes by wading into a political arena I don’t know about, but everything I do know suggests this. To sum:

        1. Genetically distant populations speak related languages all the time just because they were conquered by people who spoke those languages
        2. Tibetans possess Denisovan DNA that helps them survive at high altitude, so they have at least some extremely ancient local DNA that the Han don’t have
        3. Tibet is a really hard place to survive in (see genetic adaptations) so non-Tibetans just aren’t likely to survive for long there; even if the original conquerors left a significant genetic legacy, their descendants could have been at a significant disadvantage genetically
        4. Han are remarkably genetically homogenous, suggesting a recent origin for them
        5. The other groups in the area with Denisovan DNA, like the Melanesians and Australian Aborigines, definitely pre-date the arrival of the Han by thousands or tens of thousands of years (hapologroup analysis and archaeology support this).

        There’s a town in Colorado called Leadville (striking, uh, name there) at an elevation of 10,152 feet, making it the highest city in the US. Tibet is higher, but 10,000 is high enough. Leadville has various interesting effects on the people there:

        Elliot, 52, came to Leadville from Kansas City, Mo., 11 years ago, attracted by its size and good schools. [EvX: Leadville is something like 85% white and 15% Hispanic.] He eventually quit smoking because whenever he put his cigarette in an ashtray, it fizzled out in the thin air. …

        It takes about six weeks to be fully acclimated to Leadville. Visitors immediately notice a dry mouth, shortness of breath and difficulty sleeping. A few flights of stairs, taken with ease 3,000 feet lower, feel like mountaineering here. Hotels stash oxygen behind the counter for gasping tourists.

        Hirsheimer, 41, opened Cloud City Medical several months ago to sell oxygen to those battling altitude sickness. While many are tourists, she also provides oxygen to elderly residents who find breathing more difficult as they get older.

        “There are people who are on oxygen their entire stay,” she said. …

        “It’s not the concentration of oxygen up here that is different, it’s the partial pressure,” said Dr. Lisa Zwerdlinger, associate professor of medicine at the University of Colorado at Denver, who lives in Leadville. “Our pressure is 25% [less than] what it is at sea level so there isn’t that pressure of the atmosphere pushing oxygen into your lungs. Your body has to work harder to compensate.”

        Zwerdlinger, 33, coordinates altitude research projects in town and has treated patients suffering from a wide array of elevation-induced ailments.
        “I have seen people whose blood is so thick they don’t bleed,” she said.

        When red cells get so densely packed, patients — usually the elderly — have pints of blood withdrawn until it runs smooth again.

        Leadville children have one of the highest rates of hospitalization for respiratory ailments in the world. Babies born here are often underweight and go home on oxygen. And living two miles high means residents get five times the exposure to hazardous ultraviolet rays than at sea level, health officials say.

        So my guess is that long-term, there are some pressures keeping Tibetan (and possibly other groups way up in the Himalayas) DNA pretty distinct from the DNA of people way down near sea level.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for such a thorough response! Excellent points. (One of my relatives visited Colorado for a week and developed a cranial bleed just from doing day-hikes at the high altitude…)


      • No problem. Questions like this help me think of ideas for future posts. 🙂

        Ah jeez. I hope your relative has recovered.
        I drove through Colorado, once. Beautiful state. Highly underrated by coastal folks. But I got out of the car in Denver and said, “Where did the air go?”
        Altitude: it’s real.


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