November 20, 2013

Boy’s Skeleton In Siberia Raises New Questions About First Americans

Results from a DNA study of a young boy’s skeletal remains believed to be 24,000 years old could turn the archaeological world upside down – it’s been proven that nearly 30 percent of modern Native American’s ancestry came from this youngster’s gene pool, suggesting First Americans came directly from Siberia, according to a research team that includes a Texas A&M University professor.

Kelly Graf, assistant professor in the Center for the Study of First Americans and Department of Anthropology at Texas A&M, is part of an international team spearheaded by Eske Willerslev and Maanasa Raghaven from the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark and additional researchers from Sweden, Russia, United Kingdom, University of Chicago and University of California-Berkeley. Their work, funded by the Danish National Science Foundation, Lundbeck Foundation, and the National Science Foundation, is published in the current issue of Nature magazine.

Graf and Willerslev conceived the project and traveled to the Hermitage State Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, where the remains are now housed to collect samples for ancient DNA.  The skeleton was first discovered in the late 1920s near the village of Mal’ta in south-central Siberia, and since then it has been referred to as “the Mal’ta child” because until this DNA study the biological sex of the skeleton was unknown.

Texas A&M Prof Kelly Graf Points to Map of Russia where skeleton was found

Texas A&M Prof Kelly Graf Points to Map of Russia where skeleton was found. Photo: Texas A&M

“Now we can say with confidence that this individual was a male” says Graf.

Graf helped extract DNA material from the boy’s upper arm and “the results surprised all of us quite a bit,” she explains.

“It shows he 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. 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.”

Another significant result of the study is that the Mal’ta boy’s people were also ancestors of Native Americans, explaining why some early Native American skeletons such as Kennewick Man were interpreted to have some European traits.

“Our study proves that Native Americans ancestors migrated to the Americas from Siberia and not directly from Europe as some have recently suggested,” Graf explains.

Remains of 24,000 Year-Old Mal'ta Boy (photo courtesy of State Hermitage Museum in Russia)

Remains of 24,000 Year-Old Mal'ta Boy (photo courtesy of State Hermitage Museum in Russia)

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.”

“What we need to do is continue searching for earlier sites and additional clues to piece together this very big puzzle.”

About Research at Texas A&M University: As one of the world’s leading research institutions, Texas A&M is in the vanguard in making significant contributions to the storehouse of knowledge, including that of science and technology. Research conducted at Texas A&M represents total annual expenditures of more than $776 million. That research creates new knowledge that provides basic, fundamental and applied contributions resulting in many cases in economic benefits to the state, nation and world.

Media contact: Keith Randall, News & Information Services, at (979) 845-4644 or  Kelly Graf at (979) 845-4046

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4 Comments to Boy’s Skeleton In Siberia Raises New Questions About First Americans

  1. Kalimera Kelly.You and TAMU makes all of us feel extremely proud to collaborate whether it is about the gait mutation DMRT3 on the horse genome (with Dr. Gus Cothran), or about the origins of the American people.

    My warmest congratulations.May the Olympic deities, from Athena to Zeus, grant you success in everything noble you do.

    Theodore G. Antikas, DVM, PhD
    Head, Anthropological Research Team,
    Vergina Excavation Project,
    Aristotle University of Thessaloniki
    tel. +30 23530-41753

  2. Theo Antikas, DVM, PhD on November 21st, 2013
  3. Thank you very much Theodore!

  4. Kelly Graf on November 22nd, 2013
  5. ‘Could’ does not equal ‘Did’. Even though 30% of the modern DNA ties to this skeleton at 24000BPA, does not mean this was the “First Americans”, especially given archaeological evidence in eastern US and South America, some of which even predates this date! It is very convenient to omit such conflicting information in sensationalist promotion of this study.

  6. Darwufche on November 23rd, 2013
  7. Yes, 30% DNA relationship is a good number but it does absolutely nothing to preclude other sources of migration, I mean, we have the other 70% to consider don’t we? It also does nothing to to explain why so many extremely ancient “Clovis” spearpoints so similar to Euro designs are found in the eastern US – far more than in the western US. There is a lot we don’t know and to claim this is the DNA of the first Americans is over-reaching at best. It’s obvious to some people that traveling by boat or raft was well underway before the end of the last ice age, otherwise Australia could have never been settled by humans more than 40,000 years ago.

  8. Jim Willett on November 25th, 2013
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