Peopling of the New World remains contentious

New genetic studies reach differing conclusions

It is generally accepted that the humans first reached the New World by crossing the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska during the last Ice Age. However, the number of migrations and their timing has been debated for many decades.

The Paleoamerican model states that the earliest Americans or Paleoamericans were replaced by a second, separate wave of migrants from which today’s Native Americans are descended. The model is based on apparent differences in craniofacial morphology between some early fossil remains and more recent Native American. Note that this hypothetical second migration is distinct from the much later migrations responsible for around half of Aleut-Eskimo ancestry, and a tenth of Na-Dene ancestry.

Two new studies, published respectively in the journals Science and Nature, have reached opposing conclusions. Publishing in Science, Raghavan and colleagues analysed whole genomes of 31 present-day people from the New World, Siberia and Oceania, 23 ancient New World genomes and single nucleotide polymorphism genotypes from 79 present-day people from the New World and Siberia. The ancient DNA included samples from a 4,000 year-old Saqqaq individual from Greenland and the 12,600 year-old Anzick-1 (Clovis culture) individual from Montana.

They found that the ancestors of all present-day Native Americans, including Athabascans and Amerindians, entered the New World in a single migration from Siberia no earlier than 23,000 years ago and after no more than 8,000 years of isolation in Beringia. Around 13,000 years ago, these ancestral Native Americans diversified into two basal genetic branches: one that is now dispersed across North and South America and another restricted to North America. Subsequent gene flow resulted in some Native Americans sharing ancestry with present-day East Asians, including Siberians and, more distantly, Australo-Melanesians. But populations believed to be relict Paleoamericans including the Pericúes from Mexico and the Fuego-Patagonians, are not directly related to modern Australo-Melanesians, contrary to the predictions of the Paleoamerican Model.

The second study, published by Skoglund and his colleagues in Nature, featured genomic data from 63 Native Americans, who belonged to 21 diferent populations, and showed no discernable evidence of European or African ancestry. Results showed that some Amazonian Native Americans descend partly from a founding population with an ancestry more closely related to Aboriginal Australians, New Guineans and Andaman Islanders than to any present-day Eurasians or Native Americans. This genetic signature is not seen in present-day Northern and Central Native Americans, or in the Anzick-1 genome. The source population for this Australasian-related ancestry was named ‘Population Y’ after Ypykue´ra, which means ‘ancestor’ in the Tupi language family spoken by the Suruı´ and Karitiana.

The researchers suggested that Population Y had already admixed with a lineage related to First Americans by the time it reached Amazonia, and that it was the explanation for the differing craniofacial morphology noted above. However, no ancient DNA directly extracted from remains with this morphology, so the results did not prove that these people were Population Y. The absence of linkage disequilibrium in Population Y suggests that it arrived in the New World a long time ago. Furthermore, while it shows a distant genetic affinity to Andamanese, Australian and New Guinean populations, it is not particularly closely related to any of them, suggesting that its ultimate source in Eurasia no longer exists.

It is to be hoped that future ancient DNA studies provide further insight into the results of the Skoglund study.

Skoglund, P. et al., Genetic evidence for two founding populations of the Americas. Nature 525, 104-108 (2015).
Raghavan, M. et al., Genomic evidence for the Pleistocene and recent population history of Native Americans. Science 349(6250), 841, aab3884-1-10 (2015).




Kennewick dispute set to reignite

Ancient DNA confirms Native American affinities

Kennewick Man died about 8,600 years ago and was between 40 to 55 years old at the time of his death. In 1996, his skull and some other skeletal parts were discovered in the Columbia River, Kennewick, Washington State. The find was of interest not just to anthropologists but also to Native Americans, who refer to him as the Ancient One. The Plateau people of the Pacific Northwest claimed an ancestral relationship and requested repatriation of the remains as provided for under US federal law (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act or NAGPRA). The land where the remains were found is managed by the US Army Corps of Engineers, who announced that they were willing to hand over the remains. This in turn precipitated a lawsuit from scientists wishing to study the remains.

The plaintiffs’ claim was based on the morphology of the skull, which is long and narrow, with a narrow face, and a jutting chin. It is quite unlike the broad-headed, broad-faced appearance typical of Native Americans and resembles that of certain Pacific populations, in particular the Ainu and Polynesians. It was argued that Kennewick Man belonged to a population that reached America before the ancestors of the present-day Native Americans, and that the request for repatriation of the remains must therefore be rejected. In 2004, the plaintiffs’ claim was upheld by a judicial ruling.

However, subsequent discoveries have cast doubt on the claim that Native Americans are descended from migrants that replaced an earlier American population. Remains have been found that are even older than those of Kennewick Man, yet fall comfortably within the morphological range of present-day Native Americans. Other remains have yielded mitochondrial DNA belonging to haplogroups only found in Native American populations. Genetic studies have failed to find any evidence for a replacement of early Paleoindians by ancestors of today’s Native Americans.

It has been suggested that skull data has simply been misinterpreted. In one study, researchers applied statistical methods to skulls from all over the world, dating from around 15,000 years ago to the present day. They found that when shape variation was considered over a wide geographical range or over a long period of time, the skulls formed a continuum rather than discrete categories. The same pattern was also seen when New World skulls were considered on their own. The supposed Paleoindian and Native American forms were no more than extremes at opposite ends of a continuum, and most of the New World skulls fell well between the two extremes.

Following the 2004 ruling, study of Kennewick Man continued, but only now have researchers obtained ancient DNA from the remains. A team led by Morten Rasmussen has published its results in the journal Nature and they show that Kennewick Man is more closely related to present-day Native Americans than to any other population worldwide. Based on a comparison with Native American groups for whom genome-wide data is available, several groups are apparently descended from population closely related to that of Kennewick Man, including the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation (Colville), which is one of the five groups claiming Kennewick Man.

A renewed claim for repatriation now seems inevitable.

Rasmussen, M., Sikora, M., Albrechtsen, A., Korneliussen, T. & Moreno-Mayar, J., The ancestry and affiliations of Kennewick Man. Nature 523, 455-458 (2015).
Jantz, R. & Owsley, D., Variation Among Early North American Crania. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 114, 144-156 (2001).

13,000 year old skull and mtDNA reinforces continuity between Paleoindians and Native Americans

Teenaged girl ‘Naia’ shared craniofacial features with earliest-known Americans, but genetic profile is common among today’s Native Americans 

The first people to reach the New World arrived around 15,000 years ago, having migrated across the Beringia land bridge that then linked Siberia to Alaska. The Paleoindians, as they are known, possessed craniofacial features that differ markedly to those of present-day Native Americans. Their skulls were long and narrow, the face narrow and the forehead prominent. By contrast, present-day Native Americans are broad-faced, with rounder skulls. A facial reconstruction of Kennewick Man – an 8,400 year old skull found in the Columbia River, Kennewick, WA – is said to bear startling a resemblance to the actor Sir Patrick Steward.

It has therefore been suggested that there were two migrations to the New World, with the Paleoindians arriving first and later being replaced by the ancestors of the present-day Native Americans. However, others argue that the differences arose in situ, possibly as a result of changes in diet when the Paleoindians adopted agriculture during the period between 8,000 and 2,000 years ago. Another possibility is that the changes are simply the result of genetic drift.

The ‘two migrations’ theory has received a significant setback with the recovery of a near-complete human skeleton of a female aged 15 to 16 years from Hoyo Negro, a submerged collapsed chamber in the Sac Actun cave system in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. The skeleton has been nicknamed ‘Naia’ (Greek for ‘water nymph’), and it has been dated to between 12,000 and 13,000 years old. Naia’s craniofacial features are typical of the Paleoindian morphology, but mitochondrial DNA extracted from a molar teeth has been identified as belonging to the haplogroup D1, which occurs only among present-day Native Americans. This is consistent with the view that there was continuity between Paleoindians and present-day Native Americans.

Researchers now intend to sequence Naia’s nuclear DNA, which they hope will shed further light on the origins of the first Americans.


1. Chatters, J. et al., Late Pleistocene Human Skeleton and mtDNA Link Paleoamericans and Modern Native Americans. Science 344, 750-754 (2014).