A new discovery of ancient DNA may overturn the idea that the Native Americans were the first to have populated the American continent. Instead, a new group known as the ancient Beringians, who are more closely related to modern white Europeans has been discovered by researchers. Genetic analysis of a baby girl who died at the end of the last ice age shows she belonged to this previously unknown ancient group of Beringians.
A baby girl who lived and died in what is now Alaska, at the end of the last ice age belonged to a previously unknown group of ancient people who branched off from the ancestors of modern Europeans, according to DNA recovered from her bones.
The child, a mere six weeks old when she died, was found in a burial pit next to the remains of a stillborn baby, perhaps a first cousin, during excavations of an 11,500-year-old residential camp in Tanana River Valley in Central Alaska. The remains were discovered in 2013, but a full genetic analysis has not been possible until now.
Researchers tried to recover ancient DNA from both of the infants but succeeded only in the case of the larger individual. They had expected her genetic material to resemble modern northern or southern lineages of Native Americans, but found instead that she had a distinct genetic makeup that made her a member of a separate population.
A new genome from a Pleistocene burial in Alaska confirms a longstanding belief that European ancestors first arrived in America.
The newly-discovered group, named “ancient Beringians,” appears to have split off from the Europeans around 20,000 years ago and made their way to North America via Alaska, when a frozen land bridge made the crossing from Europe and Asia into North America possible. The ancient Beringians then pushed south as the ice caps melted and mixed with other Native American populations, which is why many Native Americans today also exhibit physical characteristics more commonly associated with whites. According to Eske Willerslev, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Copenhagen, whose team recovered the girl’s DNA from a dense part of her skull known as the petrous bone.
The findings which were published in the scientific journal Nature, are controversial and represent a growing body of evidence being discovered across the world that suggests the origins of the human race may have been Europe and not Africa as once believed.
Working with scientists at the University of Alaska and elsewhere, Willerslev compared the genetic makeup of the baby, named Xach’itee’aanenh t’eede gaay or “sunrise child-girl” by the local community, with genomes from other ancient and modern people. They found that nearly half of the girl’s DNA came from the ancient north Europeans who lived in what is now Scandinavia. The rest of her genetic makeup was a roughly even mix of DNA now carried by the northern and southern Native Americans. Using evolutionary models, the researchers showed that the ancestors of the first Native Americans started to emerge as a distinct population about 35,000 years ago. About 25,000 years ago, this group mixed and bred with ancient north Asians in the region, the descendants of whom went on to become the first white Europeans to settle the New World.