Science

Ancient baby DNA reveals origins of Native Americans

Genome sequencing on DNA of baby buried 12,000 years ago shows he is an ancestor of modern indigenous peoples

Hualapai tribal dancers gather on March 20, 2007 on the Hualapai Reservation at Grand Canyon, Arizona.
David McNew/Getty Images

The DNA of a baby boy who was buried in Montana 12,600 years ago has been recovered, and it provides new indications of the ancient roots of today's American Indians and other native peoples of the Americas.

It's the oldest genome ever recovered from the New World. Artifacts found with the body show the boy was part of the Clovis culture, which existed in North America from about 13,000 years ago to about 12,600 years ago and is named for an archaeological site near Clovis, N.M.

The boy's genome showed his people were direct ancestors of many of today's native peoples in the Americas, researchers said. He was more closely related to those in Central and South America than to those in Canada. The reason for that difference isn't clear, scientists said.

The researchers said they had no Native American DNA from the United States available for comparison, but they assume the results would be similar, with some Native Americans being direct descendants and others also closely related.

The DNA also indicates the boy's ancestors came from Asia, supporting the standard idea of ancient migration to the Americas by way of a land bridge that disappeared long ago.

Genome sequencing in November 2013 on the arm bone of a three-year-old Siberian boy known as the "Mal'ta Boy" — the world's oldest known genome — showed that Native Americans share up to 35 percent of their DNA with people in Eurasia, the Middle East and Europe.

Native Americans still have genetic connections to East Asia, but the extent of their DNA shared with Eurasians was previously unknown and thought by many scientists to be the result of intermingling with Europeans after their colonization of the Americas.

The burial site, northeast of Livingston, Mont., is the only burial known from the Clovis culture. The boy was between 1 year and 18 months old when he died of an unknown cause.

He was buried with 125 artifacts, including spear points and elk antler tools. Some were evidently ritual objects or heirlooms. The artifacts and the skeleton were covered with powdered red ochre, a natural pigment, indicating a burial ceremony.

The skeleton was discovered in 1968 next to a rock cliff, but it's only in recent years that scientists have been able to recover and analyze complete genomes from such ancient samples.

The DNA analysis was reported online Wednesday in the journal Nature by scientists Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, Michael Waters of Texas A&M University and Shane Doyle of Montana State University in Bozeman.

Doyle, a member of the Crow tribe, said the indication of such ancient roots for American Indians fits with what many tribal people already believed. He said plans are underway to rebury the boy's remains at the site after the winter.

Willerslev, an expert in deciphering ancient DNA, called for scientists to work closely with native peoples on such research. He noted there were Native American groups who said their oral history showed that they were descendants of the first people in the Americas.

"Well, they turned out to be right," Willerslev said.

The results are "going to raise a whole host of new ideas and hypotheses" about the early colonization of the Americas, said Dennis O'Rourke, an ancient DNA expert at the University of Utah who wasn't involved in the work.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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