The DNA of a young boy found in eastern Siberia holds the key to unravelling the mystery of where Native Americans originated . The 24,000 year-old remains revealed two major surprises for anthropologists when they completed an analysis of his genome.
The remains of the boy, aged 3 to 4 years old, were found buried at Mal’ta near Lake Baikal in eastern Siberia. He was buried under a stone slab wearing an ivory diadem, a bead necklace and a bird-shaped pendant. The discovery was made by Russian archaeologists back in 1938, following which the remains sat in a museum for decades gathering dust. The true significance of the finding was unrealised until they were examined by a team led by Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen.
Dr Willerslev extracted DNA from bone taken from the child’s upper arm, hoping to find ancestry in the East Asian people from whom Native Americans are known to be descended. But what they discovered was a huge surprise.
The team discovered that the boy’s DNA matched that of Western Europeans, showing that during the last Ice Age people from Europe reached much further east across Eurasia than previously believed. Incredulous at the results, they decided to test the DNA of an adult who died 17,000 years ago, found at a second Siberian grave site – they found the same markers of European origin. The results indicated that Europeans occupied Siberia during the Last Glacial Maximum approximately 20,000 years ago.
But that was not all. The results also showed that a quarter of the boy’s DNA matched that of living Native Americans. Until now it was believed that Native Americans descended from East Asians in Siberia. Now it seems that they descended from a mixture of Western Europeans who had reached Siberia and the East Asian population.
“We estimate that 14 to 38 percent of Native American ancestry may originate through gene flow from this ancient population,” Dr Willerslev and colleagues wrote in an article published Wednesday in the journal Nature.
A European contribution to Native American ancestry could explain two longstanding mysteries about their origins. One is that many ancient Native American skulls, including that of the well-known Kennewick man , look very different from those of the present day population. Another is that one of the five mitochondrial DNA lineages found in Native Americans, the lineage known as X, also occurs in Europeans.
Dr. Willerslev has presented his findings to the academic community, which received a mixture of reactions from excitement to incredulity. The research will certainly prompt a search for more ancient DNA from Siberia in order to provide further verification of this ground-breaking result.