Genetic analysis of 11,500-year-old DNA from an infant found at the Upward Sun River archaeological site in Interior Alaska is evidence of a previously unknown population of ancient people in North America. The researchers – whose findings were published January 3, 2018 in the journal Nature – have named the new group “Ancient Beringians.”
Ben Potter is a lead author of the study and a professor of anthropology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Potter said in a statement:
We didn’t know this population existed. These data also provide the first direct evidence of the initial founding Native American population, which sheds new light on how these early populations were migrating and settling throughout North America.
The analysis suggests that a single founding ancestral Native American group split from East Asians about 35,000 years ago. That group then split into two groups about 20,000 years ago – the Ancient Beringians and the ancestors of all other Native Americans.
According to the researchers, the findings also suggest two new scenarios for how humans populated the New World:
One is that there were two distinct groups of people who crossed over the Beringian land bridge prior to 15,700 years ago. A second is that one group of people crossed over the land bridge and then split in Beringia into two groups: Ancient Beringians and other Native Americans, with the latter moving south of the ice sheets 15,700 years ago.
The DNA from the six-week-old infant, named by the local indigenous community Xach’itee’aanenh T’eede Gaay – which means sunrise girl-child – has provided an unprecedented window into the history of her people, Potter said. She and a younger female infant, found at the Upward Sun River site in 2013, lived about 11,500 years ago and were closely related, likely first cousins. The younger infant has been named Ye’kaanenh T’eede Gaay (dawn twilight girl-child).
Potter said that when the science team began the analysis of the genetic material, they expected it to match the genetic profile of other northern Native American people. Instead, it matched no other known ancient population.
What this suggests, he said, is that the Ancient Beringian people remained in the Far North for thousands of years, while the ancestors of other Native American peoples spread south throughout the rest of North America. The DNA results, along with other archaeological data, suggest that Athabascan ancestors moved north again, possibly around 6,000 years ago, eventually absorbing or replacing the Ancient Beringian population and establishing deep roots in their ancestral lands. Potter said:
There is very limited genetic information about modern Alaska Athabascan people. These findings create opportunities for Alaska Native people to gain new knowledge about their own connections to both the northern Native American and Ancient Beringian people.
Bottom line: Analysis of DNA of an infant found at an Alaskan archaeological site suggests a previously unknown population of ancient people in North America.
Eleanor Imster has helped write and edit EarthSky since 1995. She was an integral part of the award-winning EarthSky radio series almost since it began until it ended in 2013. Today, as Lead Editor at EarthSky.org, she helps present the science and nature stories and photos you enjoy. She also serves as one of the voices of EarthSky on social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and G+. She and her husband live in Tennessee and have two grown sons.