The Modern Ainu, pt 2

Welcome back, everyone. Yesterday we were discussing Ainu genetics. Today we’re still discussing Ainu genetics, but this time we’re discussing mtDNA instead of Y DNA.

Modern Ainu (political protest) in 1992

Based on analysis of one sample of 51 modern Ainus, their mtDNA lineages have been reported to consist mainly of haplogroup Yhaplogroup Dhaplogroup M7a … and haplogroup G1[49][52][53] Other mtDNA haplogroups detected in this sample include A (2/51), M7b2 (2/51), N9b (1/51), B4f (1/51), F1b (1/51), and M9a (1/51). Most of the remaining individuals in this sample have been classified definitively only as belonging to macro-haplogroup M.[52] According to Sato et al. (2009), who have studied the mtDNA of the same sample of modern Ainus (n=51), the major haplogroups of the Ainu are N9 (14/51 = 27.5%, including 10/51 Y and 4/51 N9(xY)), D (12/51 = 23.5%, including 8/51 D(xD5) and 4/51 D5), M7 (10/51 = 19.6%), and G (10/51 = 19.6%, including 8/51 G1 and 2/51 G2); the minor haplogroups are A (2/51), B (1/51), F (1/51), and M(xM7, M8, CZ, D, G) (1/51).[54]

Note that Y (confusingly named) is a sub-haplogroup of N9. It’s commonly found in groups around the Sea of Okhotsk, (including the Ainu,) and in Indonesia, similar to the distribution of Sundadont teeth. Haplogroup D is found in Native Americans (highest frequency among the Aleuts,); Siberians, Ainu, east Asians, Japanese, etc. M7 is kind of generically east-Asian, with high frequency in Japan. In other words, Ainu maternal DNA is fairly similar to that of Japan at large + nearby Siberians.

So how closely related are the Ainu to rest of the Japanese?

Given the archaeology of the area and what we now know of the genetics, it looks like the Ainu were descended primarily from two main groups:

  1. Jomon, (the ancient people of Japan,)
  2. Nearby Siberians, (eg, the Nivkhs.)

Over the past hundred years or so, though, the Ainu have purposefully intermarried with the non-Ainu Japanese, who are themselves descended from a mix of:

  1. Jomon
  2. Yayoi, who invaded around 300 BC, conquering the Jomon.

We’d expect therefore for the Ainu and Japanese to share a fair amount of their mtDNA (the Yayoi probably absorbed Jomon women into their groups;) but not much Y DNA. According to Wikipedia:

Studies published in 2004 and 2007 show the combined frequency of M7a and N9b were observed in Jomons and which are believed by some to be Jomon maternal contribution at 28% in Okinawans (7/50 M7a1, 6/50 M7a(xM7a1), 1/50 N9b), 17.6% in Ainus (8/51 M7a(xM7a1), 1/51 N9b), and from 10% (97/1312 M7a(xM7a1), 1/1312 M7a1, 28/1312 N9b) to 17% (15/100 M7a1, 2/100 M7a(xM7a1)) in mainstream Japanese.[55][56]

A recent reevaluation of cranial traits suggests that the Ainu resemble the Okhotsk more than they do the Jōmon.[57] This agrees with the reference to the Ainu being a merger of Okhotsk and Satsumon referenced above.

map of gene-flow in and out of Beringia, from 25,000 years ago to present

Now certainly, if we can use DNA testing to tell that someone is “half Spaniard, a quarter Finnish, and a quarter Czech, with 3% Neanderthal DNA,” then we can use DNA testing to tell what %s of someone’s ancestry are Japanese, Ainu, Jomon, Yayoi, Siberian, etc.–it’s just a matter of getting enough relevant samples. The only major issue I could see getting in the way is if there actually is no such thing as a genetically “pure” Ainu, but rather a bunch of small Ainu groups with varying levels of admixture from all of the other groups. For example, there is no such thing as “Turkic” genetics–all “Turkic” groups speak Turkic languages, take great pride in being Turkic, and presumably have cultural connections, but genetically they are quite diverse. The situation is similar with Jewish groups. 2000 years ago, most Jews were genetically “Jewish,” but today, the vast majority of Jews are at least 50% non-ancient Hebrew by DNA.

From Ingold


But of course, genetics doesn’t tell you much about the lives of modern Ainu.

Many people theorize recent connections between all of the peoples along the north Pacific rim, from Japan to Oregon, and northward across Canada, based on similar abstract, geometric art styles; lifestyles; and documented contacts. The eternally-controversial Kennewick man (a 9,000 year old skeleton discovered in Washington State,) was initially described by some anthropologists as resembling an Ainu man. Mister Kennewick has since been proven to be related to modern Native Americans–Native Americans may simply have looked different 9,000 years ago.

I look forward to more research on connections between circum-polar and circum-Pacific peoples.

For further reading and interesting photos, I recommend The Ainu and their Culture by Dubreuil.


4 thoughts on “The Modern Ainu, pt 2

  1. Interesting that you brought up Kennewick man. So many suggested he was “European” based on the facial reconstruction and beard but it’s not uncommon for Natives of the Pacific North West to have an abundance of facial hair. I agree with those that feel there’s some sort of connection but it seems most early people had similar lifestyles with similar geometric art. Those with an abundance of food were probably more likely to develop their culture/art and fish here are extremely easy to catch during spawning season.


    • I don’t know abut facial reconstruction to know if it’s reliable. Like, if you get two different people to reconstruct the same face, do you get two different faces? Or is it usually reliable?

      There’s a remarkable story about some Japanese guys who accidentally got blown off-course and ended up not far from Kennewick. They got picked up by the local Native Americans who took them to the fort and handed them over to the Americans, who passed them on to the British, who sent more ships to that part of the world than America. Eventually they made it to Hong Kong, but I don’t think they ever made it back to Japan because of Japan’s isolationist policy. Japan just didn’t believe that these two guys trying to get into the country were actually Japanese people who’d gone missing years before and gone all the way around the world.

      I remember also a story someone told about how their grandmother, an Aleutian Islander, used to get harassed during WWII because she looked Japanese.

      People move around, get lost, go on adventures… Mr. Kennewick could have been related to the Ainu, or it could all be coincidence. I hope someday we learn more about him.


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