Zhang Haiguo, an expert in dermatoglyphics, has been awarded the Lifetime Achievement Prize for Anthropology by The Shanghai Anthropological Association.
Dermatoglyphics, which involves the study of fingerprints, palm lines and the soles of the feet, can help decipher the origins of human beings, according to Zhang.
The 62-year-old native from Shanghai is a professor from the School of Life Sciences in Fudan University and a former associate professor from the department of medical genetics in Shanghai Jiaotong University's School of Medicine.
He has devoted himself to collecting dermatoglyphic variables from China's 56 ethnic groups in an attempt to trace their origins and migratory route over a period of 30 years.
Zhang's team has collected more than 150 samples by surveying more than 68,000 Chinese from all 56 ethnic groups, making it the world's first research of dermatoglyphic variables involving all ethnic groups of a country.
"I am like a film director," Zhang jokes. "I've had more than 1,000 staff under me but they come and leave like 'actors'. Field research is not an easy job."
"Though such study could be used in criminal investigation, it has a larger significance when tracing the origins of different ethnic groups."
Zhang has divided the ethnic groups into north and south groups.
The research presents some surprising discoveries. For example, Tibetans' origins could be traced from the very north of China, instead of India as popularly believed.
Gaoshan ethnic group, a community in Taiwan, was found to have originated from the Chinese mainland instead of from the islands of the South Pacific regions.
The professor says the research will also help in the study of some genetic diseases like Down's syndrome. Based on his research, Zhang concludes that the disease will happen to one of every 690 Chinese people.
Zhang has published more than 70 articles and six books on dermatoglyphics. But his latest findings are compiled in a book, Dermatoglyphics of China's 56 Ethnic Groups, which was published in July. His research data has also been published on PLoS ONE, an international peer-reviewed online publication of the US Public Library of Science.
Zhang says he is currently exploring a new research method, which combines generic and dermatoglyphic research in a bid to better decipher the origins of ethnic groups.
"Which section of DNA decides people's fingerprints? It has been a dilemma for scientists around the world, and I hope my years of study can shed some light," he says.
When asked about his opinion on telling one's fortune through palm reading, he says: "I have perhaps seen more palms than most fortune tellers. But I don't think someone can tell others' fortune through palms. Someone invited me to join fortune telling 20 years ago, but I refused."
Huang Wenxin contributed to the story.
By Wang Kaihao