Ancient Viet 03: Following the Genetic Trail

(Continued from Ancient Viet 2: Sunken Paradise)

As a young Viet-American child growing up smack dab in the middle of the US (New Orleans no less), I quite often identified with the Vietnamese/Chinese community living in and around the south because there weren’t really that many of us Asians in that part of the neighborhood where I grew up. Heck, I was even hanging out and kicking it with the Koreans, the Filipinos, the Laotians and the Thais.

We were living in a sea of Americans of all colors and customs which allowed us to be part of the amalgamation of American demographics while at the same time, highlighting the differences between all the groups. Since I more closely resembled the Asian-Americans in my city, I more closely identified with them.

It’s crazy, but aside from the fact that we all spoke a different primary language (English was our second or even third language) we all looked very similar to each other. Most non-Asians could not differentiate us by nationality because superficially, we so resembled each other.  

Physical Features of the Kinh

Our features were definitely Asian–our eyes almond-shaped (more or less) and our bone structure, similar. We also had the same super straight, super thick, super shiny black hair. Our skin color varied from pale white all the way to a mocha-latte color.

It’s funny to reflect about all this, but I can still remember how pale my Korean friend and I were, as compared to our other Asian friends and compatriots, but my eyes were more rounded, similar to my Thai or Filipino friend. I also once met a guy from Bhutan and spoke to him in Vietnamese thinking he was from Vietnam. He looked Vietnamese!

But wait. Isn’t Bhutan part of South Asia? Shouldn’t Bhutans look more Indian or Pakistani and not SE Asian?

Mi’wang ‘Ngada Rinpoche, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and his wife, Queen Jetsun Pema.

Out of curiosity, I went googling for photos of present-day Bhutans. Aside from being remarkably beautiful people, they also looked so very much Asian.

I also found an image of the current king and queen of Bhutan. In fact, if I met this couple at my grocery store, I would attempt a few words in my language, because they truly look Vietnamese.

Now, I’m not saying the Bhutans are genetically related to us Viets, but you know what…I’ve heard of much stranger things than that. What this does point out is that we are very similar genetically.

But the questions still remain. How similar are we as fellow Asians, and what exactly are the differences?

To answer that question, I must start small, within the borders of Vietnam, and from there work outwards.

The Linguistics of the Kinh

Before I get into the nitty-gritty, I am going to start referring to the ethnic Vietnamese as the Kinh (that would include me as well) to to distinguish us from the other minority groups residing in the country. It is important to make that distinction for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, Vietnamese Kinh account for over 85.32% of the population of Vietnam in the 2019 census and are officially known as Kinh people. I don’t make it into this census because I am currently living in the US, but they don’t need my tiny little spark of life to be counted as part of the overwhelming majority. There is ample genetic evidence which identifies the Kinh as the majority group within the country–but there is a much easier way to identify them.

You don’t need to ask for their DNA for sequencing to prove that they are who they say they are. Just approach one of the Viet Kinhs and strike up a conversation. If you are fluent in Vietnamese, but that person can speak far better than you, then that person has more than an 85% chance of being a Viet Kinh.

Of course, I’m hardly the scientifically rigorous type, so we are going to have to rely on the hard core scientists to prove this point.

According to geneticists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Vietnam has a population of more than 97 million people, comprising 54 official ethnic groups speaking 110 languages belonging to five major language families [Austroasiatic (AA), Tai–Kadai (TK), Hmong–Mien (HM), Sino–Tibetan (ST), and Austronesian (AN). (5)

Of these five major language families, the vast majority of Vietnamese people speak Austroasiatic AA languages (89.9% of the Vietnamese population); TK is the second most common (5.9%) followed by HM, ST and AN (2.1%, 1.2% and 0.9%, respectively)1 (6).

This ties right in to my previous post, Ancient Viet 2: Sunken Paradise where I discuss Sundaland and how it all sank into the water, disbursing all the people around the area of Australia and the islands in and around Sundaland…which reminds me that I need to talk about Vietnam’s flood myth, the story of Sơn Tinh – Thủy Tinh because it all dovetails together into a beautiful and elegant arc. (Oh lord, I will never be able to finish this genetic discussion if my brain keeps darting from one thought to another.)

My point is, that although there are five separate major language families, all living within the slender border of Vietnam, I can safely say that the richly diverse difference between individuals within the fairly porous Vietnamese borders are facets of the same dazzling shades of gold.

The Genetics of the Kinh

Secondly, there is substantial genetic diversity in other ethnic groups–differences that do not show up in the genetic makeup of the Kinh. All Vietnamese carry South East Asian (SEA) haplotypes. What’s the big deal about SEA haplotypes?

It’s a very ancient genetic marker, that’s what.

In a paper published by the NIH National Library of Medicine, conclusive evidence from geneticists have “identif(ied) 111 novel mtDNA lineages, which result in substantially older ages for several haplogroups in MSEA.”

They also found “…a peak in the distribution of the differentiation of Vietnamese-specific lineages at around 2.5–3 kya, which corresponds with archaeological evidence for the agriculturally-driven expansion of the Đông Sơn, culture34.” Furthermore, “AN groups from Vietnam have distinct mtDNA haplotypes compared both to other Vietnamese groups, and to AN groups from Taiwan.” (6)

To clarify, when the paper talks about the fact that AN mtDNA haplotypes from Vietnam also corresponds with the haplotype from AN groups from Taiwan, they are comparing indigenous Taiwanese with indigenous Vietnamese and showing that there is a solid genetic link between us.

Those native Taiwanese would be the earliest known humans who lived on the island of Taiwan for tens of thousands of years and who speak the Austronesian language called Formosan.

They are NOT talking about the relatively recent immigration of the Hans who settled on the island in 1945 following the end hostilities in World War II, when the nationalist government of the Republic of China (ROC), led by the Kuomintang (KMT), took control of Taiwan.  Those Taiwanese Hans would be genetically identical to the Han Chinese who are currently living in mainland China.

A paper entitled ‘Research on the Vietnamese genome’ carried out by researchers at Vinmec Research Institute of Stem Cell and Gene Technology in Hà Nội identifies the ebb and flow of human migration patterns as it shows up in modern Vietnamese population, specifically for the Kinh people.

They decoded the genomes of 305 healthy Kinh people in combination with data of 101 previously published genomes and found that the Vietnamese genome is different from the genomes of other populations.

We actually showed a large difference in the frequency of occurrence of many genetic changes. How large of a difference, you ask? It’s HUGE. Somewhere around 1.24 million genome changes appear in Kinh people, but appear very little in other populations. (1) 

This means the Viet Kinh are a very ancient people, because the genetic markers get larger and larger, the longer your lineage has been around and your forefathers and foremothers were connecting with each other in very (ahem) physical ways.

Theories abound but there is much genetic evidence pointing to the strong possibility that populations to the South of East Asia (EA) probably derived from the populations in SE Asia that migrated from Africa, possibly via mid-Asia following a coastal route.  This coastal migration results in a major overlapping between the genomes of Kinh Vietnamese and Tai Thailand populations. (2)

Well heck! No wonder my Thai friends and Laotian friends look so much like me It’s because we have overlapping genomes! I’d be willing to be that’s also the reason why the Bhutans look so much like us Viets. Their home lies along this self-same migration route and their genetic markers may carry much of the same markers that make up the genomes of the Kinh.

Furthermore, when geneticists compared Kinh genomes with the genomes of Yoruba people in Western Africa, both Southeast Asian groups (Kinh and Thai) are closer to each other and to the African group than to East Asian populations like Han Chinese. (3)

The ‘Out of Africa’ theory holds up water-tight here. When we can take DNA, mRNA, and the Y Chromosome and be able to directly link our lineage to the earliest humans from Africa, we have proven that our unbroken lineage stretches back into the deep recesses of time.

This is reiterated again in yet another paper from Nature, which states: ‘The territory of present-day Vietnam was the cradle of one of the world’s earliest civilizations, and one of the first world regions to develop agriculture‘. (1)

Analyzing the Vietnamese genome showed the difference of Kinh people to other populations. When geneticists compared an international database of 1,000 human genomes, about one third of the genetic variation in the Kinh population does not occur in the Han Chinese population and vice versa. (5)

This means that since the Kinh genome has such a large difference in the frequency of occurrence of many genetic changes, it follows then that Kinh genetics is more ancient than Han genetics. Since this is the truth, there is no way that Kinh people could possibly be a genetic offshoot from the Han Chinese. We were already living in that area for thousands of years. In fact, we were thriving and had a robust civilization long long ago.

Another paper discusses this in further detail: “The results from different genomic analyses are generally consistent and support the hypothesis of population migration from Africa to Asia following the South‐to‐North route,” . This hypothesis was previously proposed by papers, such as two from 2009 and 1998, contrary to the popular school of thought that ancient Kinh Vietnamese migrated south from mainland China.” (3)

Hehh! Ain’t that something? In essence, I am part of a mecca of Asian people. Through our lands, the ancient groups of early Viets would flow and merge, coalesce, diversify, regroup, reunify, and disperse, again and again. In our blood flows ancient and powerful genetics that have survived throughout the ages and will continue onward.

(Continue to Ancient Viet 4: Ties Between Taiwanese and Vietnamese)

  1. Research on the Vietnamese genome at Vinmec Research Institute of Stem Cell and Gene Technology in Hà Nội:
  2. Phylogeographic and genome-wide investigations of Vietnam ethnic groups reveal signatures of complex historical demographic movements.
  3. Ancient Kinh Vietnamese Might Hail From Africa Instead of China, Genome Project Shows
  4. A Vietnamese human genetic variation database
  5. The paternal and maternal genetic history of Vietnamese populations
  6. Complete human mtDNA genome sequences from Vietnam and the phylogeography of Mainland Southeast Asia
  7. Vietnam Has Very Rich Genetic Diversity, New Research Shows