The origins of the first Americans

Whatever controversies still linger about when they arrived in the Americas, there can be little doubt that humans crossed what are now the Bering Straits from NE Asia using the landmass of Beringia exposed by sea-level fall during the last ice age. Of course, there have been controversies too about who they were; probably of East Asian origin but the waters muddied by the celebrated case of 9300 year-old Kennewick Man whose skull bears close resemblance to those of modern Europeans but also to those of the Ainu of northern Japan. Genetic studies of Y-chromosome DNA suggested that all early Americans stemmed from 4 separate colonising populations who may have entered via Beringia by different routes (coastal and across the interior of North America) and at different times. Now, perhaps unsurprisingly, a new kind of data seems set to stir things up immeasurably.

Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, Swift Bear, and Spott...

Famous Lacotans of the Dakotas (credit: Wikipedia)

After the triumphs of reconstruction of the Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes and the corollary that both interbred with anatomically modern humans, it was only a matter of time before the palaeogenetics of humans would be pushed back in time. The oldest remains to yield DNA are those of a boy from near Lake Baikal in Siberia excavated by Soviet archaeologists along with a rich trove of cultural remains, including female effigies. Such figurines are rare in Siberia, most being known from western Eurasia. Radiocarbon dating of the bones gave an age of around 24 ka, just before the last glacial maximum. The genetic information, specifically mtDNA and Y-chromosome DNA are potentially revolutionary (Raghavaan and 30 others 2013. Upper Palaeolithic Siberian genome reveals dual ancestry of Native Americans. Nature online doi:10.1038/nature12736).

The mtDNA (passed down the female line) places the individual in haplogroup U, but with little relation to living members with that ‘signature’. Modern haplogroup U is mainly confined to people now living in North Africa, the Middle East, south and central Asia, Europe and western Siberia up to the area where the skeleton was found but rare further to the northeast. The male-specific Y-chromosome DNA is related to haplogroup R widely spread today among men living in western Eurasia, south Asian and in the vicinity of the find. When the data were subject to statistical tests routinely used in distinguishing existing p[populations and lineages within them (principal component analysis) a surprise emerged. The boy plots separately from all living populations but halfway between modern Europeans and the genetic trend of native Americans: i.e. descendants from the population to which he belonged could have evolved towards both extant groups but certainly not to East Asians. Plotted on a map, the degree of shared genetic history of the ice-age south Siberian boy to modern humans shows links westward to Europeans and eastwards to northeastern Siberians and hence to native Americans.  Up to 38% of native American ancestry may have originated by gene flow from the population to which the boy belonged, similarly for Europeans as a whole.

The research helps explain traces of European genetic ‘signatures’ in native Americans rather than the commonly held view that this resulted from post-Columbian admixture with European invaders. It also links with the European-looking skulls of a number of early Americans which do not resemble those of East Asians once thought to be their forebears.

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