Inside a museum built over Stone Age ruins here, two workers last month attached an industrial-sized suction cup to a vacuum-sealed glass case. Air hissed as the seal was cracked and the lid was gently lifted away, exposing an eroded human skeleton. Li Hui, a geneticist from Fudan University in Shanghai, China, had his prize. He
leaned over the remains, once a major figure
in Neolithic Chengtoushan, an early site of
rice cultivation in southern China’s Hunan
province. The bones are alone in their glass
casket, but when excavated in the mid-1990s
they were draped with a jade necklace and
surrounded by sculptures of a phoenix.
As a ghoulish green light bathed the skel-
eton, Li wrapped his hand in a plastic bag
to minimize contamination and delicately
plucked a bone fragment that had chipped
off the femur. Then he nodded, and the
workers sealed the display case back up.
Back in his laboratory, Li will extract and analyze DNA from the bones, using techniques
from the burgeoning field of ancient DNA.
But unlike others in this hot field who want
to understand ancient populations and migrations, Li is seeking scientific support for
some of China’s most cherished legends.
Scientists here believe the skeleton could
be as many as 6500 years old, 2 millennia
older than China’s first historical dynasty,
the Xia—a time, according to legend, when
deities known as the Three Sovereigns ruled
the land. Chinese credit the sage-kings with
laying the foundations of their culture:
inventing silk and medicine, for instance,
and fashioning China’s written characters.
Based on the luxurious relics buried with
the skeleton—which archaeologists dubbed
“the mayor”—Li believes he may have been a
chieftain of a clan associated with Fuxi, one
of the mythical sovereigns. Fuxi is credited
with rice cultivation, and the phoenix is a
symbol associated with that sovereign.
By comparing DNA from the bone chip to
sequences in a vast database of DNA samples
gathered around China, Li hopes to probe
that tantalizing possibility. It is the latest and
boldest of his efforts to turn myths into history with the help of DNA. “We are retracing
and rebuilding history to understand the
development and adaptation of Chinese people,” Li says, “so we can imagine the future
of Chinese people—what will we evolve into?”
Li’s quest has won cautious praise from
some scholars. Paleoanthropologist Chris
Geneticist Li Hui believes a DNA database can authenticate
mythical figures from before the dawn of China
By Kathleen McLaughlin, in Chengtoushan, China
BRINGING LEGENDS TO LIFE
Li Hui extracts DNA to help nab
modern killers—and probe ancient myths.