Researchers use latest technology to recreate ancient women

Computer graphic reproduction of the face and body parts of a woman named Himiko or Okitama from 1600 years ago. (Provided by the Yonezawa City Board of Education, Yamagata Prefecture)

YONEZAWA, Yamagata Prefecture — Efforts by multiple research institutes using computer graphics and DNA technology have recreated the putative features of a woman who may have been of noble birth 1,600 years ago.

Images and video of the reconstructed model released in November. According to the researchers, 4 revealed that “Himiko of Okitama” had drooping eyes, a flat nose and straight black hair during her lifetime, features that suggested she was a direct ancestor of modern humans.

Her skin color and hair type were determined based on genetic data from her skeletal remains, which were discovered in 1982 at the Totsukayama Burial Mounds in the Asakawa district of Yonezawa.

Seven research institutions, including Tohoku University, collaborated with the Yonezawa City Board of Education to reproduce her full body through methods including DNA analysis and forensic facial reconstruction.

There are about 200 graves at the foot of Mount Totsuka in Yonezawa City, part of the Okitama area.

Himiko’s bones were found in Box Sarcophagus No. 1. 137 Totsukayama tombs from the second half of the 5th century, along with a long-toothed comb and a knife.

A study by Dokkyo Medical University found her height to be between 143 and 145 centimeters. She was estimated to be around 40 years old when she died.

The reproduction project began after Tohoku Gakuin University excavated the Haizukayama Kofun site in Kitakata, neighboring Fukushima Prefecture, in fiscal 2017.

The skeleton of a man aged 50 or over was unearthed there.

Nuclear DNA was extracted from the ancient female’s teeth for comparison with the male’s remains. The study found that 96 to 97 percent of her genetic information was preserved.

“We have almost all the data on nuclear DNA or human blueprints,” said Hideto Tsuji, a professor of Japanese archeology at Tohoku Gakuin University, who led the replication project. “Such a wealth of information is rarely left in the bones of older adults.”

In fiscal 2021, Yuka Hatano, an assistant professor of forensic science at Tohoku University’s Graduate School of Dentistry, and Toshihiko Suzuki, an associate professor of forensic science at the school, began re-examining the woman’s remains and reconstructing her facial features.

The Tokyo National Science Museum was commissioned to analyze her nuclear DNA.

The right side of the woman’s skull has been lost, and the nasal bone has not been found.

But the study could show how she might be biting the bullet, leading to a better understanding of her eating habits and lifestyle.

“Her teeth were worn down and there were clear signs of temporomandibular joint dysfunction,” Hatano said. “The condition appeared to be caused by her chewing pattern and other habits, and her jaw was twisted slightly to the left.”

The “sagging eyes” conclusion is based on the thickness of her skin.

Analysis by the National Science Museum revealed that she had straight black hair, brown or dark brown skin and eyes a color between black and brown.

She is a descendant of people who migrated from mainland China during the Yayoi pottery culture period (1000 BC – 250 AD).

But some features typical of people from the early Jomon pottery culture period (c. 14,500 BC to 1000 BC) were also found in the woman’s remains.

“The Jomon people are said to have a rougher face and a more prominent nose, but her nose was flattened,” Hatano said. “Bigger eyes and single eyelids were added to her replica.”

Tsuji, a professor at Tohoku Gakuin University, said it is possible that Himiko and the man who is now in Fukushima prefecture knew each other.

“Using advanced radiocarbon (C14) dating techniques, analyzes of the human remains at Mount Haizuka and Mount Tozuka showed that they belonged to the same period,” Tsuji said.

“She is very similar to us, which shows that she is our direct ancestor,” he continued. “The research results are very important, and we hope to share them with local people in a more understandable way through imaging.”

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