Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

The Four Eves of the Americas

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

The Four Eves of the Americas

Article excerpt

This is the tale of beginnings. One tiny clue buried deep within the cells of the body has finally unlocked a thousand-year-old story. According to scientists at Emory University in the United States, four women who crossed the Bering Straits between 15,000 and 30,000 years ago engendered the entire New World.

The peopling of the Americas has long been a subject of heated disagreement among anthropologists and arachaelogists, and in recent years fierce academic battles have raged over who settled the New World and when they arrived. Even linguists have added their voices to the argumentative din, most recently claiming that almost all the native tongues of the Americas have a single common ancestor.

But this latest startling scenario of the American Genesis comes from an even less likely group--biochemists and geneticists, who are more interested in tracking hereditary diseases than settling old arguments about the human discovery of South and North America. Nonetheless, by looking at submicroscopic strands of protein inside human cells, they have peered thousands of years into our family past and presented us with the great-great-ever-so-great-grandmothers of the New World.

Biochemist Douglas C. Wallace and his co-workers study the structure of DNA in mitochondira, which resemble bacteria and play a role inside living cells similar to the role organs play inside the body. Mitochondria are unusual because they have their own genetic code distinct from the cells they inhabit. Each person inherits this mitochondrial DNA only from his or her mother. As a result, the genes of mitochondrial DNA are a record of maternal ancestry, as well as a key to tracing rare diseases inherited only through the maternal line.

As part of their ongoing studies, the Emory researchers examined blood samples of three peoples vastly separated by distance, culture and language: the Ticuna of South America, the Maya of Central America and the Pima of North America. They compared the mitochondrial DNA patterns in the three populations and made an astonishing discovery. The Ticuna, Maya and Pima share four rare mitochondrial DNA patterns that are only found outside the Americas in a few Asian populations. …

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