Stone age child reveals Indian history

Native Americans of North and South America parted much earlier than expected

Typical stone and bone tools of the Clovis culture © Sarah L. Anzick
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A Stone Age child provides new insights into Native American history - and provides surprises. The DNA of the 12, 500-year-old boy of Clovis culture shows that the Indians of North and South America parted much earlier than expected. But it also refutes the hypothesis that Europeans came across the Atlantic in the Stone Age, as researchers report in "Nature". Strange, too: The boy is most closely related to today's Mayan and Amazonian Indians - though his relics were found in Montana.

Where the ancestors of the first Indians came from, anthropologists discuss this to this day. Whether the Altai, Siberia or even the West of Eurasia - in recent years, archaeological and genetic finds have supported one or the other theory. Even the controversial thesis, according to which the first Native Americans did not come from Asia via the Bering Strait, but across the Atlantic from Europe, is considered extremely unlikely, but clearly not refuted. For a long time, the enigmatic European appearance of some finds of Native American fossils, including Kennewick Man, which is around 9, 000 years old, was a sign of this.

Only grave of the Clovis culture

Now, an international research team led by Eske Willerslev from the University of Copenhagen has gained new insights into the early history of the American continent and its inhabitants. Most important helper here: a Stone Age child who died about 12, 500 years ago. This was buried around 12, 707 to 12, 556 years ago along with grave goods near Anzick in Montana.

The tomb of Anzick-1, as the boy was baptized, is the only known so far of the so-called Clovis culture. Spread over 13, 000 years in much of North America, this is considered to be the oldest population of hunters and gatherers on the American continent and a forerunner of most Native American peoples. Willerslev and his colleagues have now for the first time completely analyzed the genome of this Anzick-1 baptized boy - and thus looked back further into the genetic history of North America than ever before.

Site of the Anzick tomb in Montana, the bar marks the exact position. Mike Waters

An Indian ancestor in Montana

To explore the origin and relationship of the Clovis boy, the researchers compared his genetic material with the 143 different human groups today in North and South America, but also in Asia and Europe. The first surprise: Although the Clovis boy lived in North America, he is more closely related to 44 of today's Central and South American Native American groups than to Indians of Canada and the Arctic. As the researchers explain, there are two scenarios that could explain this: Display

For one thing, the tribal lineages of North and South American Native Americans could have split even before the Clovis era. One part would then have "hung" over the Bering Strait in the Arctic after immigration, while the rest of the population moved further south, and later South America populated. Anzick-1 should have been born shortly after this split as a child of Clovis people who were already on their way to the south.

Subsequent immigration from Siberia?

The second possibility: Anzick-1 and his parents belonged to the ancestors of all Native Americans in the north as in the south. The splitting of both groups happened only after his death. The differences between his genome and today's Arctic Indian tribes could be explained by the fact that their ancestors subsequently immigrated from Siberia. Willerslev and his colleagues have reviewed this scenario by comparing the genetic pattern of the Arctic Indians with that of 19 different Siberian tribes.

Her conclusion: "There is no evidence for a subsequent gene flow from Siberia into this aboriginal group." In their view, therefore, the first scenario is more likely: When the Clovis boy was alive, the separation into northern and southern S The Native Americans have already taken place.

Ridiculous connection to the Maya

Another gene comparison supports this assumption: Willerslev and his colleagues have compared the genome of Anzick-1 with that of various South American Native Americans. The surprising result: The Clovis boy is most closely related to the descendants of the Maya who live today and to the people of a tribe of Amazon Indians, the Karitiana.

Still, Anzick-1 was not a Maya, as the researchers emphasize. Because the gene comparisons also show that the Clovis boy was also relatively closely related to all other Native Americans. He was therefore a people who had not yet moved very far from the common roots of all natives.

No Atlantic Crossers

And another thing shows the genome of the Clovis boy: The researchers found almost no trace of European genetic material. "Our analyzes clearly oppose the possibility that the Clovis people came to America from across the Atlantic from Europe, " the researchers emphasize. Regardless of whether the child looked European or Indian his genome clearly makes him a descendant of people who immigrated via the Bering Stra e.

Genetically, the Clovis boy is even remotely related to the child of Mal ta. The genome of this youngster living in southern Siberia some 24, 000 years ago was analyzed by Willerslev and his colleagues only last year. (Nature, 2014, doi: 10.1038 / nature13025)

(Nature, 13.02.2014 - NPO)