Ancient DNA suggests people settled South America in at least 3 waves

New genetic analyses are filling in the picture of who the earliest Americans were

skulls and bone fragments from Lagoa Santa, Brazil

REVEAL  DNA analyses of these skulls and bone fragments from Lagoa Santa, Brazil, and other ancient remains from North and South America are helping scientists learn more about the peopling of the Americas.

Natural History Museum of Denmark

DNA from a 9,000-year-old baby tooth from Alaska, the oldest natural mummy in North America and remains of ancient Brazilians is helping researchers trace the steps of ancient people as they settled the Americas. Two new studies give a more detailed and complicated picture of the peopling of the Americas than ever before presented.

People from North America moved into South America in at least three migration waves, researchers report online November 8 in Cell. The first migrants, who reached South America by at least 11,000 years ago, were genetically related to a 12,600-year-old toddler from Montana known as Anzick-1 (SN: 3/22/14, p. 6). The child’s skeleton was found with artifacts from the Clovis people, who researchers used to think were the first people in the Americas, although that idea has fallen out of favor. Scientists also previously thought these were the only ancient migrants to South America.

But DNA analysis of samples from 49 ancient people suggests a second wave of settlers replaced the Clovis group in South America about 9,000 years ago. And a third group related to ancient people from California’s Channel Islands spread over the Central Andes about 4,200 years ago, geneticist Nathan Nakatsuka of Harvard University and colleagues found.

People who settled the Americas were also much more genetically diverse than previously thought. At least one group of ancient Brazilians shared DNA with modern indigenous Australians, a different group of researchers reports online November 8 in Science.

Genetically related, but distinct groups of people came into the Americas and spread quickly and unevenly across the continents, says Eske Willerslev, a geneticist at the Natural History Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen and a coauthor of the Science study. “People were spreading like a fire across the landscape and very quickly adapted to the different environments they were encountering.”

Both studies offer details that help fill out an oversimplified narrative of the prehistoric Americas, says Jennifer Raff, an anthropological geneticist at the University of Kansas in Lawrence who was not involved in the work. “We’re learning some interesting, surprising things,” she says.

For instance, Willerslev’s group did detailed DNA analysis of 15 ancient Americans different from those analyzed by Nakatsuka and colleagues. A tooth from Trail Creek in Alaska was from a baby related to a group called the ancient Beringians, who occupied the temporary land mass between Alaska and Siberia called Beringia. Sometimes called the Bering land bridge, the land mass was above water before the glaciers receded at the end of the last ice age. The ancient Beringians stayed on the land bridge and were genetically distinct from the people who later gave rise to Native Americans, Willerslev and colleagues found.

The link between Australia and ancient Amazonians also hints that several genetically distinct groups may have come across Beringia into the Americas.

The Australian signature was first found in modern-day indigenous South Americans by Pontus Skoglund and colleagues (SN: 8/22/15, p. 6). No one was sure why indigenous Australians and South Americans shared DNA since the groups didn’t have any recent contact. One possibility, says Skoglund, a geneticist at the Francis Crick Institute in London and a coauthor of the Cell paper, was that the signature was very old and inherited from long-lost ancestors of both groups.

So Skoglund, Nakatsuka and colleagues tested DNA from a group of ancient Brazilians, but didn’t find the signature. Willerslev’s group, however, examined DNA from 10,400-year-old remains from Lagoa Santa, Brazil, and found the signature, supporting the idea that modern people could have inherited it from much older groups.  And Skoglund is thrilled. “It’s amazing to see it confirmed,” he says.

How that genetic signature got to Brazil in the first place is still a mystery, though.  Researchers don’t think early Australians paddled across the Pacific Ocean to South America. “None of us really think there was some sort of Pacific migration going on here,” Skoglund says.

That leaves an overland route through Beringia. There’s only one problem: Researchers didn’t find the Australian signature in any of the ancient remains tested from North or Central America. And no modern-day indigenous North or Central Americans tested have the signature either.

rock shelter in Lapa do Santo, Brazil
ILLUMINATING EXCAVATION A rock shelter in Lapa do Santo, Brazil, was the burial site for a person who died about 9,600 years ago. DNA analysis of that person’s and other ancient remains is helping scientists uncover details about how the Americas were populated long ago. André Strauss

Still, Raff thinks it likely that an ancestral group of people from Asia split off into two groups, with one heading to Australia and the other crossing the land bridge into the Americas. The group that entered the Americas didn’t leave living descendants in the north. Or, because not many ancient remains have been studied, it’s possible that scientists have just missed finding evidence of this particular migration.

If Raff is right, that could mean that multiple groups of genetically distinct people made the Berigian crossing, or that one group crossed but was far more genetically diverse than researchers have realized.

The studies may also finally help lay to rest a persistent idea that some ancient remains in the Americas are not related to Native Americans today.

The Lagoa Santans from Brazil and a 10,700-year-old mummy from a place called Spirit Cave in Nevada had been grouped as “Paleoamericans” because they both had narrow skulls with low faces and protruding jaw lines, different from other Native American skull shapes. Some researchers have suggested that Paleoamericans — including the so-called Kennewick Man, whose 8,500-year-old remains were found in the state of Washington (SN: 12/26/15, p. 30) — weren’t Native Americans, but a separate group that didn’t have modern descendants.

But previous studies of Paleoamericans and Willerslev’s analysis of the Spirit Cave mummy’s DNA provide evidence that, despite their skull shapes, the Paleoamericans were not different from other Native Americans of their time. And the ancient people are more closely related to present-day Native Americans than any other group.

Willerslev presented the results about the Spirit Cave mummy to the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone tribe when the data became available. Based on the genetic results, the tribe was able to claim the mummy as an ancestor and rebury the remains.

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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