History In The Headlines

Ancient Infant’s DNA Provides Key to Native American Ancestry

By Sarah Pruitt
Between 13,000 and 12,600 years ago, members of the Clovis culture appeared in North America, where they made and used distinctive stone-tipped spears to hunt mammoth, bison and mastodon. Until recently, all that archeologists knew about the Clovis people came from studying their tools, which have been unearthed at wide-ranging sites across the country. Now, DNA analysis of a single human skeleton--that of a one-year-old boy buried in a rocky field in modern-day Montana--has allowed scientists to link the Clovis culture to Native Americans throughout the Western Hemisphere.
Clovis-era tools originally discovered along with the remains of a one-year-old boy at a burial site in western Montana in 1968. (Credit: Sarah Anzic)

Clovis-era tools originally discovered along with the remains of a one-year-old boy at a burial site in western Montana in 1968. (Credit: Sarah Anzic)

Construction crews first discovered the ancient remains of an infant in 1968 on private property owned by the Anzick family in western Montana. Dubbed Anzick-1, the one-year-old boy is the only human skeleton that has been identified as a member of the widespread, sophisticated Ice-Age culture known as Clovis. Now, a team of scientists has succeeded in mapping the infant’s DNA, in the oldest genome sequence of an American individual ever performed. According to their findings, published this week in the journal Nature, the Clovis people are direct ancestors of many Native Americans now living in North America, and can be linked to many native peoples in Central and South American as well.

Up to this point, all scientists studying the Clovis culture had to go on were the stone and bone tools that have been found at sites ranging from Washington State to Florida, along with many states in between. By sequencing the genome of the infant recovered at the Anzick site, the international team of researchers gained the most vivid insight yet about who these people might actually have been. They compared the DNA of the Clovis infant to several different genomes, including a 24,000-year-old sample from a young man buried on the banks of Lake Baikal in Siberia, a 7,000-year-old sample from Spain and a 4,000-year-old sample from Greenland. The Clovis DNA showed the most similarity with that of the Siberian youth, whom scientists genetically linked with today’s Native Americans late last year.

The new study adds to existing archeological evidence that Native American descended from humans who migrated to North America from Asia through Siberia around 15,000 years ago. They are believed to have made the voyage across the Bering land bridge, which connected Asia with North America during the last Ice Age. According to archeologist Michael Waters of Texas A&M University, a member of the team who conducted the new study, the genetic evidence “strongly suggests that there was a single migration of people into the Americas….[T]hese people were probably the people who eventually gave rise to Clovis.”

Such evidence casts doubt on other theories arguing that Clovis’ ancestors came from Europe, rather than Asia. Such hypotheses rely partially on the fact that the “Clovis points” found on their tools and weapons are so similar to the flint tools used by the Solutrean culture, which flourished in Spain and France during the Ice Age.

While Anzick-1 showed the most genetic similarities with Native Americans in North America, the study also revealed ties with the indigenous peoples of Central and South America. The team’s data indicates that sometime between 13,000 and 24,000 years ago, the same ancient people that arrived from Asia split into two lineages: One gave rise to Clovis and today’s Native Americans of North America, and the other became the ancestors of Central and South American tribes.

The scientists studying Anzick-1 have worked closely with Native American tribes in Montana, sharing the results of the study with them and ensuring that the remains were treated appropriately. The infant will be reburied later this year, on the same property from which he was unearthed. For their part, the tribes have shown little surprise at the scientists’ conclusions. Shane Doyle, a professor of Native American History at Montana State University and co-author on the study, is also a member of the Crow tribe. As he told NBC News, after conversations with more than 100 tribe members, the main reaction was “We have no reason to doubt that we’ve been here for this long.”

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Categories: Archaeology, Ice Age, Native Americans, Science