Surprise find in Siberia reveals new understanding of evolution

  • Article by: NICHOLAS WADE , New York Times
  • Updated: November 20, 2013 - 9:16 PM

Ancient DNA revealed new understanding of American Indians’ ancestry.

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Lake Baikal in south-central Siberia is the site of archaeological digs now challenging assumptions about how far west Paleolithic peoples from Western Europe ranged.

Photo: Niobe Thompson , via New York Times

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The genome of a young boy buried at Mal’ta near Lake Baikal in eastern Siberia some 24,000 years ago has turned out to hold two surprises for anthropologists.

The first is that the boy’s DNA matches that of Western Europeans, showing that during the last Ice Age people from Europe had reached farther east across Eurasia than previously supposed. Although none of the Mal’ta boy’s skin or hair survive, his genes suggest he would have had brown hair, brown eyes and freckled skin.

The second surprise is that his DNA also matches a large proportion — about 25 percent — of the DNA of living American Indians. The first people to arrive in the Americas have long been assumed to have descended from Siberian populations related to East Asians. It now seems that they may be a mixture between the Western Europeans who had reached Siberia and an East Asian population.

The Mal’ta boy was 3 to 4 years old and was buried under a stone slab wearing an ivory diadem, a bead necklace and a bird-shaped pendant. Elsewhere at the site, 30 Venus figurines were found of the kind produced by the Upper Paleolithic cultures of Europe. The remains were excavated by Russian archaeologists over a 20-year period ending in 1958 and stored in museums in St. Petersburg, Russia.

There they stayed for some 50 years until they were examined by a team led by Dr. Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen. Willerslev, an expert in analyzing ancient DNA, was seeking to understand the peopling of the Americas by searching for possible source populations in Siberia. He extracted DNA from bone taken from the child’s upper arm, hoping to find ancestry in the East Asian peoples from whom American Indians are known to be descended.

An amazing turn

But the first results were disappointing. The boy’s mitochondrial DNA belonged to the lineage known as U, which is commonly found among the modern humans who first entered Europe some 44,000 years ago. The linages found among American Indians are those designated A, B, C, D and X, so the U lineage pointed to contamination of the bone. “The study was put on low speed for about a year because I thought it was all contamination,” Willerslev said.

His team proceeded anyway to analyze the nuclear genome, which contains the major part of human inheritance. They were amazed when the nuclear genome also turned out to have partly European ancestry. Examining the genome from a second Siberian grave site, that of an adult who died some 17,000 years ago, they found the same markers of European origin. Together, the two genomes indicate that descendants of the modern humans who entered Europe had spread much farther east across Eurasia than had previously been assumed and occupied Siberia during an extremely cold period starting 20,000 years ago that is known as the Last Glacial Maximum.

The other surprise from the Mal’ta boy’s genome was that it matched to both Europeans and American Indians but not to East Asians. Willerslev’s interpretation was that the ancestors of American Indians had already separated from the East Asian population when they interbred with the people of the Mal’ta culture, and that this admixed population then crossed over the Beringian land bridge between Siberia and Alaska to become a founding population of American Indians.

“We estimate that 14 to 38 percent of Native American ancestry may originate through gene flow from this ancient population,” he and colleagues wrote in an article published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

Migration of European bearers

A European contribution to American Indian ancestry could explain two puzzles about the people’s origins. One is that many ancient American Indian 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 linages found in American Indians, the lineage known as X, also occurs in Europeans. One explanation is that Europeans managed to cross the Atlantic in small boats some 20,000 years ago and joined the American Indians from Siberia.

Willerslev thinks it more likely that European bearers of the X lineage had migrated across Siberia with the ancestors of the Mal’ta culture and joined them in their trek across the Beringian land bridge.



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