It is generally suggested (through archeological and genetic evidence) that the Ainu (or the ancestors of the Ainu) originated in southern Siberia or somewhere in Central Asia. From there my ancestors migrated to the East into Japan.
We are the descendants of the northern “Jōmon people”, which arrived likely from southern Siberia into Japan some 30,000 to 15,000 years ago. They are descendants of a paleolithic population in southern Siberia which was also related to paleolithic Europeans and Middle Easterners. Thus anthropologically the Jomon were/are more similar to West-Eurasian peoples (also known as “Caucasoids”) such as Europeans or Arabs but underwent “genetic drift”.
It is still not known if we migrated through the Korean peninsula or over a land ridge through Sakhalin into Japan. Recently, archaeologic studies favor the Sakhalin route.
(An Ainu warrior with an axe in traditional Ainu clothing)
Now some facts and evidence from science:
Archeology and pottery
The Ainu pottery which derives from the Jomon pottery was distributed in most of Japan and southeastern Siberia. It is a type of ancient earthenware pottery which is to date one of the oldest kinds of pottery. Similar types are found in all of Siberia, Europe and the middle East. The Jomon pottery was the most unique of them because of the impressing cords on the surface of the wet clay. The most similar type is found in Europe from the Corded Ware culture, a prehistoric European culture.
Most archeologists suggest that the ancestors of the Ainu migrated through Siberia into Japan. The distribution of similar pottery types support a migration from western Eurasia to Japan through Siberia.
Anthropology and craniometrics
As mentioned before, the Ainu and many Jomon did not look like other East Asian people. They are more similar to European people which caused a stir among early historians.
Many anthropologists (such as Jantz, Owsley, Landor, Brace, and many others, most recently Seguchi 2019) classified them as sub-branch of the “Caucasoid race” or part of the West-Eurasian cluster.
Recent studies support this classification.
A craniometric study by Brace et al. 2001 concluded that the Ainu have an ancient link to West-Eurasians and are all anthropologically and genetically related to Europeans. They concluded that modern Ainu can be described as “Eurasians”.
“The fact that Late Pleistocene populations in northwest Europe and northeast Asia show morphological similarities suggests that there may have been actual genetic ties at one time. Those morphological similarities can still be shown between Europe and the descendants of the aboriginal population of the Japanese archipelago, i.e., the Ainu.
— Brace et al. 2001, Old World sources of the first New World human inhabitants: A comparative craniofacial view
Another study by Kura et al. 2014 further supported this by additional evidence of a northern origin for the ancestors of the Ainu. The study found strong craniometric similarities between Ainu and Arctic populations of Eurasia. According to the research team, the Ainu are morphologically a “Caucasoid population”.
According to Seguchi et al. 2015, 2018 and 2019, the Ainu and their Jomon ancestors are the descedants of a paleolithic south-Siberian population which was related to Europeans and West Asians (Middle East). This paleolithic population did not only migrate to Japan, but also possibly into some places in North America.
Similarly a study by Schmidt (2018) came to the same conclusion: The Ainu are descendants of a paleolithic population from southern Siberia, whose next relatives are Europeans and other West-Eurasians. But he also suggests that there is also a minor East-Eurasian component in the Ainu ancestry.
Here some rather unmixed Ainu in modern days:
The Ainu are also genetically distinct from other East Asians. We belong predominantly to the yDNA haplogroup D-M55 which is distinct since about 53,000 years. Other D-branches are found in Central Asia, Tibet, the Andaman islands and some parts of China. D-branches were also reported in Romania, the Caucasus mountain and Polynesia.
According to geneticists, D-M147 originated in Central Asia, some 70,000 years ago and was widespread in all of Eurasia but went extinct in most regions. Some also call it a “macro-haplogroup”. Meaning: Different D-branches are strongly distinct and distant from each other.
In a genetic analysis in April 2020, by Boulygina et al.2020, found a small number of samples with distinctive Ainu lineage among ancient Koban burials in northern and central Caucasus (northern Ossetia, Russia).
Recently it was confirmed that the Ainu show no relation to Tibetans or Andamanese and are more distant to them than to Mongolians (Buryats) in comparison.
A genetic study published in the scientific journal “Nature” by Jinam et al., using genome-wide SNP data comparison found that the Ainu have unique characteristics and are distinct from contemporary East-Eurasians. The Ainu have some genes which are associated with Europeans.
Additionally the rare mt haplogroup X: It is unique to the Ainu in East Asia:
If we look at autosomal DNA we see the unique position of the Ainu and the Jomon people:
A full genome analysis of a 3,800 year old Jōmon woman shows that this sample shared gene variants which are found only in Arctic populations of Eurasia, but are absent elsewhere. According to the authors this provides strong evidence that the Jōmon originated in Siberia.
The sample also showed a higher alcohol tolerance than other Eastern Eurasian populations. Further analysis suggest that the Jōmon sample was at high risk of developing “liver spots” if she spent too much time in the sun. The Jōmon sample had wet earwax, which is also more common in West-Eurasian populations.
The genetic data shows that modern Japanese have about 8% Jōmon DNA, some native Taiwanese (Amis and Atayal) have 40%, the Siberian Ulchi and the Nivkhs have 17.8% and 27.2% respectively. The modern Ainu have +80% Jōmon DNA.
A facial reconstruction in 2018 based on genome information of a 3,800 year old Jomon woman from Rebun Island in Hokkaido showed that the color of the woman’s skin was slightly darker than that of modern Japanese, her hair was thin and fine, and that the color of her eyes was light brown. Additionally, analysis revealed that the woman had blood type A+. [Ed. Note: Possibly with a mix of Neanderthal and/or Denisovan?]
Another study also disproved the idea about a relation to Andamanese or Tibetans; instead, it presented evidence of gene flow between the Ainu and “lowland East Asian farmer populations” (represented in the study by the Ami and Atayal in Taiwan, and the Dai and Lahu in Mainland East Asia).
Genetic analyses of HLA I and HLA II genes as well as HLA-A, -B, and -DRB1 gene frequencies links the Ainu to some indigenous peoples of the Americas, especially to populations on the Pacific Northwest Coast such as Tlingit. The scientists suggest that the main ancestor of the Ainu and of some Native American groups can be traced back to Paleolithic groups in Southern Siberia. (→ We see this is in agreement with anthropologic studies and with archeologic evidence.)
My people, the Ainu, came from southern Siberia to Japan and the Okhotsk region. We are the descendants of a paleolithic population of southern Siberia with links to early Europeans and Middle Easterners. So we are of the so called “Caucasoid” race.
But after all, we are Ainu. Thank you for reading. Now some pictures of historical and modern Ainu:
Thank you for the interest in the Ainu!