DNA extracted from a young boy who died 24,000 years ago could prove that the first Native Americans were European. The genome of the four-year-old boy, who died in south-central Siberia, is the oldest sequenced to date. It provides an insight into origins of Native Americans whose ancestors are believed to have travelled across Siberia into the Americas during the Ice Age.
Writing in the journal Nature, the researchers claim that around 30 per cent of modern Native American ancestry comes from the young boy’s gene pool. ‘The result came as a complete surprise to us,’ said Professor Eske Willerslev from Copenhagen University who led the study. ‘Who would have thought that present-day Native Americans, who we learned in school derive from East Asians, share recent evolutionary history with contemporary western Eurasians?’
The 24,000 year-old boy was unearthed in the 1920s by Russian archaeologists near the village of Mal’ta, along the Belaya river in Siberia. Scientists from Copenhagen University in Denmark took a sample from the boy’s arm bone, extracted DNA from it and compared it to existing Native American populations.
They found that DNA from the boy’s Y chromosome and from the mitochondria (the energy factories of the cells) were of types found today in a region encompassing Europe, West and South Asia and North Africa. Interestingly, the boy showed no similarities with populations such as the Chinese, Koreans or Japanese. This puzzled researchers as today’s Native Americans are closely related to East Asians.
One theory is that the boy’s future relatives mixed with the ancestors of East Asians at some time after he died. This result paints a picture of Eurasia 24,000 years ago which is quite different from the present-day context. The genome of the young boy indicates that prehistoric populations related to modern western Eurasians occupied a wider geographical range into northeast Eurasia than they do today.
‘It tells us that these individuals that were living in Siberia- in south-central Siberia 24,000 years ago- their genes contributed to first Americans’ genes,’ Texas A&M University researcher Kelly Graf. ‘I think what it does is it helps to clarify some things and the first is that the Americans came from Siberia. ‘Some archeologists had suggested that the first Americans could have come from Europe directly from transoceanic migration, and I think that this does a fairly good job clarifying that: it was a land migration or at least a coastal migration through Beringia.’
Previously, researchers had thought that people came from Europe into East Asia, and then entered Siberia from the south. The latest results suggest the Siberian inhabitants may have come from the West and that there were multiple waves of migrations in Asia around this time.
The research could also help explain some mysteries surrounding Native American origins. For example, some early American skeletons – such as the 9,000-year-old Kennewick Man from – have physical features that, some believe, are typically European.
HOW NATIVE AMERICANS TRAVELLED FROM SIBERIA DURING THE ICE AGE
The latest research paints a picture of Eurasia 24,000 years ago which is quite different from the present-day context. The genome of the young boy indicates that prehistoric populations related to modern western Eurasians occupied a wider geographical range into northeast Eurasia than they do today. Scientsts believe most Native Americans are descended from a small group of migrants that crossed a ‘land bridge’ between Asia and America during the ice ages 15,000 years ago.
These migrants, known as the ‘First Americans’, populated most of North and South America. The latest results suggest the Siberian inhabitants may have come from the West and that there were multiple waves of migrations in Asia around this time.