Qiaomei Fu says that she was nervous when she arrived at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology to pursue a PhD on ancient-human genomics, in 2009. Her master’s research in China had focused on the diets of early farmers, and she had no experience with ancient DNA, or even genetics. But Fu jumped headfirst into her new field and “turned out to be one of the most amazing students we’ve ever had”, says Svante Pääbo, a geneticist at the hub for ancient genomics in Leipzig.
With a trio of Nature papers published in the past 20 months, Fu has helped to redraft the history of Europe’s earliest modern humans. She returned to China in January to lead an ancient-DNA lab at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing, where she is set to bring the same upheaval to Asia’s ancient past.
She joined Pääbo’s team just as it was putting the finishing touches to a draft Neanderthal genome. “It was really high pressure. There were a lot of really interesting things, and a lot of scary things for me,” says Fu. “I came there at really the right time.” Fu learned how to harvest the scant DNA in ancient bones and quickly picked up evolutionary genetics, bioinformatics and computer programming to analyse the data that she was generating.
Her focus soon turned to the early modern humans who settled Eurasia after leaving Africa, and Fu began collecting and analysing their bones and teeth. She has sequenced the oldest Homo sapiens DNA on record: from a 45,000-year-old thigh bone from Siberia and a 40,000-year-old jawbone from a man who had a Neanderthal ancestor in the previous 4–6 generations. Her efforts — culminating in a study of 51 individuals who lived between 14,000 and 37,000 years ago — have shown that Ice Age Europe was more tumultuous than many had thought, with waves of migrants moving in and around the continent and contributing to the ancestry of contemporary Europeans.
Asia’s early history may have been even more dramatic than that, because several groups of archaic humans probably coexisted with modern humans, says María Martinón-Torres, a palaeo-anthropologist at University College London who works in China. Fu will turn her attention to the firstHomo sapiens to settle Asia, who might have arrived more than 100,000 years ago. She also hopes to study Asian history as recent as a few thousand years ago — the IVPP has a vast collection of ancient human bones that have yet to be sampled for DNA.
Fu is often asked why she returned to China instead of staying in the West. “I’m curious what happened in China and east Asia,” she responds, “I think it was time to come back.”