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Ancient DNA reveals intriguing details about a sixth century Chinese emperor

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Ancient DNA recovered from the remains of a sixth century Chinese emperor who ruled during the country’s dark ages has shed some light on what the leader may have looked like.

Emperor Wu ruled China as part of the Northern Zhou dynasty from 560 to 580 and is credited with unifying the northern part of ancient China during a particularly chaotic period.

Archaeologists found his tomb in northwestern China in 1996. In a study published Thursday in the journal Current Biology, researchers analyzed genetic material from his remains, which included a nearly complete skull. They gleaned information about his appearance, health and ancestry.

The emperor belonged to a little studied nomadic group called the Xianbei that lived in an area that today is Mongolia and northern and northeastern China. The analysis of the genome sequenced from the DNA suggested Wu had brown eyes, black hair and dark to intermediate skin color.

Excavation of the Xiongnu Elite Tomb 64 containing a high status aristocratic woman at the site of Takhiltiin Khotgor, Mongolian Altai.

Related article Ancient DNA reveals secrets of empire that pushed China to build its Great Wall

“Some scholars said the Xianbei had ‘exotic’ looks, such as thick beard, high nose bridge, and yellow hair,” said Shaoqing Wen, study coauthor and an associate professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, in a news release. “Our analysis shows Emperor Wu had typical East or Northeast Asian facial characteristics.”

The authors said they hoped ancient DNA might shed light on Wu’s cause of death. The emperor died suddenly at age 36,