Native American Ancestry Unveiled: DNA from Skeleton Shows Tribes Come from One Population

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An ancient baby's skeleton has revealed through its DNA that Native Americans descend from a single gene pool with roots in Asia.

The bones belong to an infant that died between 12,707 and 12,556 years ago in Montana. The baby was covered in red ochre and buried on a hillside along with more than 100 stone and bone tools characteristic of Clovis people, a Paleo-Indian culture that was widespread in North America at the time. The grave of the roughly 1-year-old boy, discovered by construction workers in 1968, is the only Clovis burial site ever found.

A report in the Feb. 13 Nature details the child's genetic makeup and suggests that the Clovis people were ancestors of present-day Native Americans. Like today's Native Americans, the Clovis baby's heritage traces to a child known as the Mal'ta boy who lived in Siberia 24,000 years ago (SN: 12/28/13, p. 16). The finding suggests that Native American populations have a common Asian heritage.

"This clearly shows that the homeland of the first Americans was Asia," says study coauthor Michael Waters, a geologist and archaeologist at Texas A&M University in College Station.

The study may put to rest an idea, known as the Solutrean hypothesis, that ancient Europeans crossed the Atlantic and established the Clovis culture in the New World. "It's not the last nail in the coffin, it's the last spade full of earth on the grave of the Solutrean hypothesis," says Jennifer Raff, an anthropological geneticist at the University of Texas at Austin who was not involved in the work.

The study may also settle speculation about the Clovis people's relationship to modern Native Americans. Clovis culture was widespread between 13,000 and 12,600 years ago, but other styles of toolmaking eventually replaced Clovis spearpoints. Along with other evidence, that shift suggested that the Clovis people may have been replaced by later groups settling the Americas.

"Their technology and tools vanished, but now we understand that their genetic legacy lives on," says study coauthor Sarah Anzick, a Montana-based molecular biologist who was 2 years old when the baby's grave was found on her family's land. …