DNA Study Suggests New Territory for Ancient Americans


dna21It has long been an accepted theory among paleontologists that the Americas were first populated by nomadic tribes of hunter-gatherers who emigrated from the far east of Asia during the last Ice Age nearly 15,000 years ago.  With ocean levels reduced worldwide because of glaciations drawing a vast portion of water into the ice, a dry “land bridge” emerged from the shallow waters to connect the extreme north-east of present-day Siberia with Alaska.  Over the course of the following millennia the descendants of those first people expanded to fill out North America and then to the most remote points of South America.

But now that theory is being challenged, courtesy of the latest in DNA examination and cross-referencing across cultures.  If the findings published in the journal Nature are accurate, it could well mean that the Americas were populated ten thousand years earlier… and accompanied by people from as far away as Western Europe.

During the late 1920s the skeleton of a child was discovered in the vicinity of Mal’ta, a village in south-central Siberia.  The individual represented has come to be called “the Mal’ta Child”, out of uncertainty of its gender.  Examination of DNA from samples taken from the Mal’ta Child has now determined that the youngster was a male.

But that is not what most shocked the researchers: a multi-national team sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the Danish National Science Foundation, and Lundbeck Foundation.  The Mal’ta Child boasted a whopping 30% of genes found in modern Native Americans.  The conclusion of that finding is indeed that aboriginal Americans migrated first from Siberia.  But there were a couple more unexpected twists from this tale…

It turns out that the Mal’ta child shared clearly discernible ancestry with groups found in Western Europe, a tremendously long distance from the furthest end of Eurasia. “It shows he had close genetic ties to today’s Native Americans and some western Eurasians, specifically some groups living in central Asia, South Asia, and Europe. Also, he shared close genetic ties with other Ice-Age western Eurasians living in European Russia, Czech Republic and even Germany. We think these Ice-Age people were quite mobile and capable of maintaining a far-reaching gene pool that extended from central Siberia all the way west to central Europe,” said Kelly Graf, assistant professor in the Center for the Study of First Americans and the Department of Anthropology at Texas A&M University.

And then there is the age of Mal’ta Child: established to be in the neighborhood of 24,000 years.  That is much earlier than the 14,500 years commonly postulated to have been the earliest date for migration to the Americas.  The interpretation is that Siberia was already represented by people stretching across the whole of northern Europe and Asia, and that they crossed into North America much earlier.  If so, it would explain the presence of many European traits in Native Americans.  It is research that is almost certain to blow apart much modern thinking about the first Americans.  But as Graf noted, “What we need to do is continue searching for earlier sites and additional clues to piece together this very big puzzle.”

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