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November 21, 2013

24,000 Year-old Skeleton Reveals Clues about Native American Origins

by VOA News

Results from DNA testing of a 24,000 year-old skeleton of a young boy reinforces the theory that the first Americans came from Siberia.

The testing showed that nearly 30 percent of modern Native Americans’ ancestry comes from the so-called Mal’ta child’s gene pool. The remains were discovered in the late 1920s near the village of Mal’ta in south central Siberia.

“Our study proves that Native Americans ancestors migrated to the Americas from Siberia and not directly from Europe as some have recently suggested,” said Kelly Graf, assistant professor in the Center for the Study of First Americans and Department of Anthropology at Texas A&M, who was part of an international team studying the skeleton.

Graf noted that the Mal’ta child, whose skeleton is at the Hermitage Museum in Russia, had close genetic ties to today’s Native Americans and some western Eurasians, specifically some groups living in central Asia, South Asia, and Europe.

“Also, he shared close genetic ties with other Ice-Age western Eurasians living in European Russia, Czech Republic and even Germany,” she said.  “We think these Ice-Age people were quite mobile and capable of maintaining a far-reaching gene pool that extended from central Siberia all the way west to central Europe.”

This, Graf said, could explain why some early Native American skeletons such as Kennewick Man were interpreted to have some European traits, an interpretation that led some to believe Native Americans may have come from Europe instead.

The DNA work performed on the boy is the oldest complete genome of a human sequenced so far, the study shows.  Also found near the boy’s remains were flint tools, a beaded necklace and what appears to be pendant-like items, all apparently placed in the burial as grave goods.

The discovery raises new questions about the timing of human entry in Alaska and ultimately North America, a topic hotly debated in First Americans studies.

“Though our results cannot speak directly to this debate, they do indicate Native American ancestors could have been in Beringia—extreme northeastern Russia and Alaska—any time after 24,000 years ago and therefore could have colonized Alaska and the Americas much earlier than 14,500 years ago, the age suggested by the archaeological record.”

The study was published in the current issue of Nature magazine.

Here's a short video about the study: