An ancient Chinese emperor from 1,500 years ago has been reconstructed by a team of researchers using DNA extracted from his remains. Emperor Wu of the Northern Zhou dynasty’s face has been reconstructed, shedding light on his appearance and potential cause of death. The study, published in Current Biology, suggests that Emperor Wu’s death at the age of 36 might have been due to a stroke. It also offers insights into the origin and migration patterns of a nomadic empire that once ruled parts of Northeast Asia.

Emperor Wu ruled during the Northern Zhou dynasty from 560 to 578 AD. He is noted for building a strong army and unifying the northern regions of ancient China by defeating the Northern Qi dynasty.

Belonging to the Xianbei ethnic group, a nomadic people residing in present-day Mongolia, northern, and northeastern China, Emperor Wu’s appearance has been subject to scholarly discussion. Some researchers characterized the Xianbei as having distinct features such as thick beards, high nasal bridges, and yellow hair. However, DNA analysis revealed that Emperor Wu had typical facial features of East or Northeast Asian descent, with brown eyes, black hair, and skin ranging from dark to medium.

The discovery of Emperor Wu’s tomb in northwest China in 1996 provided archaeologists with his skeletal remains, including an almost complete skull. Recent advancements in ancient DNA research enabled scientists to extract over a million single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) from Emperor Wu’s DNA. Combining this genetic data with his skull, researchers reconstructed his 3D facial structure.

Emperor Wu’s untimely demise at 36, along with the early death of his son, has led to speculation about the cause. While some suggest illness, others propose poisoning by rivals. Analysis of Emperor Wu’s DNA revealed a predisposition to strokes, consistent with historical accounts describing symptoms such as aphasia, drooping eyelids, and an abnormal gait.

Additionally, the genetic analysis unveiled intermarriage between the Xianbei and the Han Chinese as the Xianbei migrated southward into northern China. This interethnic mixing provides crucial insights into ancient population movements and cultural exchanges in Eurasia.

Future research aims to examine the ancient DNA of individuals from Chang’an, an ancient city in northwest China that served as the capital of numerous Chinese empires and the eastern terminus of the Silk Road. Understanding the genetic makeup of Chang’an’s inhabitants will further illuminate patterns of migration and cultural interaction in ancient China.


Cell Press | Panxin Du, Kongyang Zhu, et al., Ancient genome of the Chinese Emperor Wu of Northern Zhou. Current Biology, 2024; DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2024.02.059

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