Science

Ancient DNA discovery reveals previously unknown population of native Americans

Ancient DNA discovery reveals ...
An artist's impression of the camp in central Alaska where the fossil was unearthed
An artist's impression of the camp in central Alaska where the fossil was unearthed
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Members of the archaeology field team watch as University of Alaska Fairbanks professors Ben Potter and Josh Reuther excavate at the Upward Sun River site
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Members of the archaeology field team watch as University of Alaska Fairbanks professors Ben Potter and Josh Reuther excavate at the Upward Sun River site
An artist's impression of the camp in central Alaska where the fossil was unearthed
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An artist's impression of the camp in central Alaska where the fossil was unearthed
An estimated timeline showing the migration of humans into the Americas
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An estimated timeline showing the migration of humans into the Americas

A few years ago the fossilized remains of a baby girl were uncovered in a harsh and isolated part of central Alaska. The remains were dated at 11,500 years old, and a new DNA study has now revealed not only an incredible insight into the origins of human migration into North America, but also the existence of a previously undiscovered population of humans that have been named "Ancient Beringians".

The conventional theory about how humans migrated into the Americas suggests that sometime between 15,000 and 30,000 years ago, humans wandered from Asia into North America across a land bridge called Beringia that connected the two continents.

This latest discovery reveals a distinctive, and previously undiscovered human lineage that surprised researchers, who were expecting to find a genetic profile that matched northern Native American people. The study of this ancient child's DNA pointed to an entirely new population of people, separate to those that ultimately spread throughout the rest of North America.

An estimated timeline showing the migration of humans into the Americas
An estimated timeline showing the migration of humans into the Americas

The researchers suggest two possible theories to explain this new lineage. Either two separate groups of people crossed the land bridge into the Americas over 15,000 years ago, or one group crossed, and then split into two entirely independent populations. Closer genetic sequencing suggests the latter outcome is the most likely, but why and how this Ancient Beringian population remained so genetically isolated and distinct for so many subsequent years remains a mystery.

Members of the archaeology field team watch as University of Alaska Fairbanks professors Ben Potter and Josh Reuther excavate at the Upward Sun River site
Members of the archaeology field team watch as University of Alaska Fairbanks professors Ben Potter and Josh Reuther excavate at the Upward Sun River site

The study also posits that a type of "back migration" occurred, possibly around 6,000 years ago, as northern Native American populations spread back up into Alaska and either absorbed or replaced the Beringian population, resulting in a distinct Alaskan native population called the Athabascan.

"There is very limited genetic information about modern Alaska Athabascan people," says Ben Potter, one of the lead authors on the study. "These findings create opportunities for Alaska Native people to gain new knowledge about their own connections to both the northern Native American and Ancient Beringian people."

The new study was published in the journal Nature.

Source: University of Alaska Fairbanks

2 comments
Westtrekker
Are not the Athabascan, Apache and Navajo closely connected? If so, why are they all not included in the DNA chart?
bwana
These people were hunter / gatherers and I'm pretty sure they didn't have any real goal in mind WRT to a final destination. They could have traveled the Beringia route multiple times over thousands of years. Heck, they might have had homecomings in Siberia and/or Alaska every couple of years?