The first genome sequencing of the Ice Age skeletal remains of a 1-year-old boy has given scientists definitive proof that the first human settlers in North America were from Asia and not Europe, and that these people were the direct ancestors of modern Native Americans, according to research that includes a Texas A&M University professor.
Michael Waters, director of the Center for the Study of First Americans at Texas A&M, is part of an international team of researchers who had their work published in the current issue of Nature magazine.
In 1968, the skeletal remains of a Clovis child were found near a rock cliff in central Montana, along with more than 100 burial artifacts found with the boy such as spear points and antler tools. The remains are 12,600 years old, the oldest such remains fully sequenced.
Several years ago, Waters contacted the group that owns the skeleton and asked for permission to perform genetic testing on the remains. The area where the remains were found is now known as the Anzick site, named after the family who own the land where the site is located.
It is the oldest known human burial from North America and it is the only Clovis-era burial site ever found.
“We were able to extract DNA from the bones and show that the ancestors of this boy originated from Asia. These people eventually migrated to North America, settled the continent, and gave rise to Clovis,” Waters explains.
“We hope that this study leads to more cooperation between Native Americans and scientists. This is just one human genome. We need to know the genetic story of modern Native peoples and derive more genetic data from ancient remains to fully understand the origins and movements of the First Americans and their descendants,” Waters adds.
He said the skeleton and burial artifacts were covered with red ochre, a type of mineral. The ochre was powdered and used in the burial ceremony. Ochre was often used in prehistoric times as a pigment and in burials.
While not the earliest inhabitants of the Americas, Clovis is the first widespread prehistoric culture that first appeared 13,000 years ago. Clovis originated south of the large Ice Sheets that covered Canada at that time and are the direct descendants of the earliest people who arrived in the New World around 15,000 years ago.
Clovis people fashioned their stone spear tips with grooved, or fluted, bases. They invented the ‘Clovis point,’ a spear-shaped weapon made of stone that is found in Texas and other portions of the United States and northern Mexico. These weapons were used to hunt animals, including mammoths and mastodons, from 13,000 to 12,600 years ago.
Waters, who has worked on many Clovis and older sites, says, “It is gratifying to see the genetic evidence meshing with the archaeological evidence. These two methods together will tell the story of the earliest settlers of the Americas.
“The genetic information provided by the Anzick boy is also part of the larger story of modern humans. We know that modern humans originated in Africa and then around 50,000 years ago spread rapidly over Europe and Asia. The last continent explored and settled by modern humans were the Americas. In essence, the Anzick boy tells us about the epic journey of our species,” he adds.