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A romantic legend intertwines with a genetic discovery

Aug 19,2004
Medical researchers said they have found some evidence to support claims that Koreans had an Indian ancestor 2,000 years ago.
One of the researchers in an archaeological survey of an ancient royal tomb in Gimhae, South Gyeongsang province, Seo Jeong-sun of Seoul National University, told the JoongAng Daily, however, that finding evidence to support a legend was only a side note to the real work of the survey.
For the first time, he said, the entire genetic code of ancient Korean remains has been decoded. That, he said, would advance the study of the origins of modern-day Koreans.
Dr. Seo and Kim Jong-il of Hallym University presented their findings at a meeting of the Korea Genome Organization in Chuncheon, Gangwon province.
For non-specialists, though, the suggestion that an old romantic legend may have some validity probably resonates more than the scientific findings. The stories say Kim Su-ro, a king of Great Gaya, married an Indian princess, Heo Hwang-ok, who traveled by ship to Korea from the kingdom of Ayodhya in present day India. Great Gaya was a kingdom in southeast Korea from about the beginning of the Christian era until 562.
According to the legend, the couple had 10 children, two of whom took their mother’s family name. Heo is still a fairly common family name in Korea.
The two medical professors said they found DNA consistent with that of South or Southeast Asian ethnic groups ― Malaysian, Thai or Indian ― in the remains of one of the four corpses in the tomb at Gimhae. The remains are believed to be descendants of Kim Su-ro.
The genetic study focused on the mitochondrial DNA in the human remains. Mitochondria are cellular components that are the source of power for animal and human cells and have DNA that is passed to succeeding generations through the maternal line. That maternal transmission makes such DNA valuable in studying family lines and evolution.
“Since one of the bodies has the DNA of a southern race, the myth could be true,” Dr. Kim said.
Dr. Seo said that 20 to 30 percent of modern-day Koreans have DNA traceable to South and Southeast Asian ethnic groups, despite the popular perception of Koreans that they are an ethnically homogenous group that originated in Mongolia.
The findings do not necessary challenge that assumption in broad terms, but the complete genetic profile is a valuable resource.
“More studies need to be done,” Dr. Kim said, “but this discovery could be the beginning of identifying the Korean race.”


by Choi Sun-young, Shim Jae-woo