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DNA Evidence: Clovis People Ancestors to All Native Americans

  • Rosanne Skirble

Replicas of Clovis artifacts discovered at a site at least 12,600-years-old are displayed at the Montana Historical Society in Helena, Montana, Feb. 12, 2014.

Replicas of Clovis artifacts discovered at a site at least 12,600-years-old are displayed at the Montana Historical Society in Helena, Montana, Feb. 12, 2014.

Native Americans have long considered their oral tradition central to their cultural identity. They count among their ancestors the Clovis people, named for the stone tools discovered near Clovis, New Mexico, in the early 1930s and found in some 1,500 other sites across North America. The first mapping of the Clovis genome provides evidence that ties these ancient people to contemporary American Indians.

Sarah Anzick grew up on a farm along Flathead Creek in the western state of Montana. In 1968, the only Clovis burial site ever found was discovered on her family's property. The prehistoric skeleton of a young boy was found buried under some 125 artifacts - largely stone spear points distinctive to Clovis and antler tools.

Anzick, now a geneticist, is co-author of a study in the scientific journal Nature that describes the Clovis genome.

“So as a steward of the remains and with training in human genetics and genomics, my experience positioned me uniquely to contribute to the history of the early inhabitants of the North American continent by analyzing the ancient DNA from this Clovis individual," said Anzick.

The remains of the child date to the end of the Clovis era or some 12,600 years ago, says co-author Michael Waters, director of the Center for the Study of First Americans at Texas A&M University.

“This is the oldest burial in North America and the only Clovis burial. The genetic findings match well with the archeological data for the first Americans. The two methods together tell the story of the earliest settlers of the Americans and their descendants," said Waters.

The Clovis lived at a time when mammoth, mastodons and giant bison roamed the Earth. On closer look, the genome finds the Clovis boy is related to all present-day Native Americans in North and South America. Waters adds that the ancestors of this boy originated from Asia and not from Europe as previously hypothesized.

“These genetic findings are consistent with the archeological evidence which shows that the North American continent was first explored and settled 15,000 years ago, with Clovis emerging 2,000 years later at 13,000 years ago," he said.

Native people today inherited those genes. The work to sequence the genome engaged the native community, says historian Shane Doyle, a Crow Indian and professor at Montana State University. Doyle, another study co-author, says native people want more cooperation like this in research.

“We are looking to change that whole story, and we want to bring American Indians to the table with this research so they can help guide the most respectful and appropriate ways to do this kind of research, actually inform the scientists along the way, so that we are able to move forward together," said Doyle.

Doyle says it is young people like his students who will move that dialogue into the 21st century.

He says the Clovis genome sequence did not come as a surprise to Native Americans.

“I feel like this discovery confirms what tribes have never really doubted, that we’ve been here since time immemorial and all of the artifacts and objects in the ground are remnants of our direct ancestors," he said.

While DNA was extracted from the Clovis skeleton for scientific purposes, the bones will be reburied sometime this year in cooperation with Native American tribes in Montana to honor the sacred Indian tradition.