5 Things We Learned From the Oldest Genome Ever Found in the Americas

PHOTO: Native Americans take part in the Native Nations Procession during the opening ceremony of the Smithsonian National Museum of American Indian. Recent DNA discoveries shed new light on Native American ancestry.

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Last week, a Danish evolutionary biologist published the results of the first genetic analysis of an ancient body uncovered in Montana in 1968. The corpse belonged to a baby boy who died about 12,600 years ago, toward the end of the last Ice Age. The Anzick skeleton was discovered by farmers, and was surrounded by around 125 artifacts. Eske Willerslev studies the DNA of prehistoric people, and was interested in finding out how the Anzick skeleton (so named for the owners of the farm where it was found) was related to modern-day Native Americans. After reviewing the coverage of the report in Nature this week, we’ve put together the five most interesting things we learned.

Above: The burial site in western Montana where the Anzick skeleton was discovered. CREDIT: Associated Press

1. His ancestors descended from Asia

There is a lot of controversy surrounding which people first lived in the Americas. The Anzick skeleton’s DNA was traced to the Siberian Upper Paleolithic Mal’ta people. There was no DNA evidence suggesting the boy’s ancestors were of European descent. This strengthens the theory that Native Americans descended from Asian people who crossed a now-nonexistent land bridge to North America, not from Europeans.

2. Most indigenous Americans are related to him

According to the report in Nature, “the Anzick-1 individual is more closely related to all indigenous American populations than to any other group." Their data "are compatible with the hypothesis that Anzick-1 belonged to a population directly ancestral to many contemporary Native Americans.”

The items buried with the skeleton are from the Clovis tribe, one of North America’s earliest known hunting groups. The researchers hypothesize that 80 percent of Native Americans alive today are descendents of the same people as the Anzick boy.

3. The U.S. has no Native American DNA available for this kind of research

Willerslez and his fellow researchers wanted to compare the Anzick skeleton’s DNA to modern Native American samples, but said there were none available from the United States.

4. Researchers are working with indigenous groups to be more respectful of their ancestors

Earlier analyses of bodies found at burial sites were met with resistance from Native tribes. They argued that scientists were violating their ancestors’ remains. With this in mind, Willerslev worked with representatives from the local Crow tribe to make sure they were respectful with the Anzick skeleton.

Shane Doyle is one of the co-authors of the paper. He’s also a professor of Native American Studies and a member of the Crow tribe. At a speech at the Montana Historical Society about the findings, he said, “Historically, there’s been a lot of abuse by anthropologists of tribal communities, especially in the 19th century.” For this project, Doyle took Willerslev to meet with tribal representatives to discuss his research. The scientists agreed to return the Anzick skeleton’s remains to the Crow to be re-buried properly.

“We expect to put him back where he was found,” Doyle said.

Above: Some of the artifacts discovered at the Anzick burial site. CREDIT: Associated Press

5. The Clovis treated their dead with respect and had extensive burial rituals

The Anzick skeleton was between one year and 18 months old when he died of unknown causes. His tribe, the Clovis, buried him with red ochre powder and surrounded him with weapons, tools, and heirloom items. Mike Waters, another co-author and the director of the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A & M University, said this demonstrates that a lot of time and care went into the boy’s burial.

“This was a prehistoric tragedy. Someone lost their child. They lovingly buried this child with artifacts and red ochre,” Waters said in a speech at the Montana Historical Society. The items found with him “would have been valuable and important things to people who were hunters and gathers. They clearly showed the emotions of these early people.”

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