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Farming didn't erase genetic diversity in Papua New Guinea

Goroka village in the Eastern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea. Photo: Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research

New genetic analysis of people living in Papua New Guinea shows a sharp genetic divide between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago that was likely determined by whether their ancestors lived a more nomadic life in the highlands or a more sedentary one in the lowlands.

Why it matters: The genetic divide began at about the same time people began farming in the lowlands. In other parts of the world during the Bronze and Iron Ages, migration and innovations were the prime forces that shaped human evolution. But that doesn't seem to be the case in Papua New Guinea, where the transition to cultivating crops had the opposite effect. Study author geneticist Chris Tyler-Smith told Science that "is a big surprise."

How they did it: Researchers analyzed the genetic makeup of 381 people from 85 different language groups across Papua New Guinea, and also analyzed 39 genome sequences that had been previously generated from people there.

What it means: The researchers say the findings may indicate technological advances in the Bronze Age — not earlier agricultural ones — may have wiped out genetic groups in Europe, per Science.

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