The anthropological world was stunned when the recent genome study of the 24,000-year-old remains of a small Siberian boy revealed that the child was both part-Western European and modern Native American.
This turns on its head the long-held notion that those who first settled the Americas (themselves descendants of Siberian populations) were related to East Asians, as well as raising questions as to when the Americas were first settled – and by which peoples. New evidence gleaned from the three-year-old Mal’ta boy found near Lake Baikal in Eastern Siberia shows that the ancient Native Americans could in fact be a mixture between West Europeans and an ancient East Asian people, according to a study published in the journal Nature on Wednesday.
The study demonstrates that as much as 30 percent of this brown-haired, freckled boy’s DNA can be found in modern Native Americans, which suggests that their modern population came directly from Siberia.
The boy’s body was discovered by Russian archaeologists in the 1920s, lying under a slab of rock, wearing ancient jewelry – an ivory diadem, a bird-shaped pendant and a bead necklace – all of which point to an Upper Paleolithic European culture. Some figurines were found at the site as well.
All of this was excavated by the scientists and studied for two decades, then subsequently stored in museums in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).
But a team led by Danish ancient DNA expert, Eske Willersley, from the University of Copenhagen, recently got to work trying to find a direct connection between East Asia and the American Indians. The resulting research was published in the journal Nature on November 20.
Willersley set about extracting mitochondrial DNA from the boy’s arm, but was underwhelmed when it turned out to belong to the U lineage – which means modern Europeans who settled on the continent over 44,000 years ago. The lineages common to Native Americans are A, B, C, D and X.
But having analyzed the so-called nuclear genome, which carries more evidence of our ancestry, he told AFP that “the result came as a complete surprise to us.”
Firstly, the boy was from all over Europe: the two examined genomes show that modern Europeans had traveled much father into Eurasia than we had previously assumed.
Kelly Graf, an assistant professor at the Center for the Study of First Americans and Department of Anthropology at Texas A&M, who helped Willersley in his research, told Science Daily that the find “shows he had close genetic ties to today’s Native Americans and some western Eurasians… 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.”
Secondly, the Native American connection was finally found.
“Our study proves that Native Americans’ ancestors migrated to the Americas from Siberia and not directly from Europe as some have recently suggested,” Graf said. This sort of intricate and complete DNA mapping of a human is the oldest of its kind ever performed.
However, given the boy’s European-Native-American mix, it was strange that the boy had no connection to modern East Asians. This has led Willersley and his team to suppose that the ancient Native Americans had already broken off ties with the East Asians before interbreeding with the Mal’ta people, to whom the boy belongs.
This population must then have traveled over the frozen Beringian land bridge that used to be between Siberia and Alaska. This consequently resulted in the creation of the modern Native Americans.
Intriguingly, even these new groundbreaking discoveries don’t fully solve all the remaining puzzles.
For one, ancient Native American skulls look more European than modern ones. And another one is that the X lineage found in modern Native Americans sometimes occurs in Europeans as well.
Also, the exact time and place of the mixing – whatever combination it was – cannot yet be determined. Likewise, the bigger question that this inevitably leads to is when the American continent was first settled.
They can be answered in time, but will require dipping into a much more ancient DNA pool. However, we now know that Siberia is an ancient treasure trove that holds the secrets to how Americans and Europeans interbred and settled thousands of years ago.