This Just In –

It has taken 46 years to get the answer.  Well, twelve thousand six hundred and forty six, to be more precise.  And it’s all due to a little boy.

He lived in Montana.  Maybe he was a happy, chubby little fellow, toddling about, smiling, learning to talk.  We know he was very much loved, because when he died, at about two years old, he was buried with hundred of spear points, and other stone tools, stone points, and his body was painted with red ochre. One thing that is evidence of how much he was loved is that buried with him were carved elk antlers that were hundreds of years older than he was – heirlooms, presumably.

He died roughly twelve thousand six hundred and forty six years ago, and was buried, and his people moved on, and spread across the land.

And then, forty six years ago, in 1968, his body was found, on a ranch in Montana near the town of Wilsall, northeast of Bozeman.  The site is called the Anzick site.  It was discovered by accident, and contained many spear points and stone tools, all of them Clovis-type tools, as well as partial skeletal remains of this small boy.

But there is something very special about this boy.  For he has shared a secret with us.  He has told us much about his ancestry, and the ancestry of the Native Americans who live here today.

To understand this, let’s step back a little.  At present there are two main hypotheses about how people first came to the continent.  One, the subject of prior blog entries, is that people came from Siberia across Beringia, the vast land bridge that connected Siberia and Alaska.  The second, the Solutrean hypothesis, posits that Clovis predecessors came, across the Atlantic from southern Europe, following the edges of the ice during the last Glacial maximum.  This would mean that they used hide-covered kayaks, or other similar watercraft. This hypothesis derives, in part, from the similarity of Clovis points to stone tools found in Southern Europe.

So:  We have two very different hypotheses; two doors to the Continent in essence:  One by boat to the East Coast; the other on foot down through Alaska, and south.

Here’s where the little boy comes in.  Genetic analysis, performed by a team led by Eske Willerslev, a paleobiologist at the University of Copenhagen, has shown that the Native Americans in North and South America have genes consistent with those of people from Siberia.  The little boy’s genes show that “the gene flow from the Siberian Upper Palaeolithic Mal’ta population into Native American ancestors is also shared by the Anzick-1 individual[1] and thus happened before 12,600 years BP.”[2] What this means is that those genes are from Siberia.  But this little boy, living and dying here in North America, over twelve thousand years ago, had them too.  And those genes are shared with modern Native Americans.  This boy’s ancestors came from Asia. This is strong evidence in support of the hypothesis that the Americas were peopled via Beringia.

Does this mean the end of the Solutrean hypothesis?  Well, it is strong evidence, but not necessarily the death knell for the Solutrean hypothesis.  After all there is nothing that requires Beringia to be the exclusive means of entering North America.  It is possible that people came in across the Atlantic, too.  And defenders of the Solutrean hypothesis aren’t giving up.  “They haven’t produced evidence to refute the Solutrean hypothesis,” said geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer of Oxford University, a leading expert on using DNA to track ancient migrations. “In fact, there is genetic evidence that only the Solutrean hypothesis explains.”[3]  There is a dearth of DNA data from existing Native American populations, so there may be (as yet undiscovered) genetic evidence supporting an inflow of people from Western Europe.

One interesting thing about this genetic study is that the little boy’s genes are more closely associated with Central and South American peoples than native Americans from the far north.

“The team was able to determine that the Anzick genome was much more closely related to Native Americans than to any other group worldwide. The child’s DNA more closely resembles that of Central and South Americans than Native Americans from the far north, although the relationship is still very close. . . Comparing the Anzick genome with that of a 24,000-year-old Siberian boy and a 4000-year-old Paleo-Eskimo from Greenland confirms that Native Americans originally come from Northeast Asia.

How to explain the north-south difference? The team concludes that the most likely scenario is that an ancestral population that lived several thousand years before the Clovis period split into two groups, one staying north and one going south. Just where and when this split happened cannot be determined from the genetic data. . . The northerners then likely mated with peoples who came in later from Asia, and so became slightly more genetically distant from Anzick.”[4]

Like so much having to do with paleontology and archeology, it is only a piece of the puzzle.  But it is an important piece. Thanks to this little boy, and the family who loved him, we now know more – much more – about the peopling of the Americas.

And, appropriately, members of the Anzick family, with the cooperation of various tribes in the area, are going to re-bury the boy’s remains, and so return him to his land.

 


[1] Anzick-1 is the little boy.  I find it hard to think of him that way.

[2] “The Genome Of A Late Pleistocene Human From A Clovis Burial Site In Western Montana;” http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v506/n7487/full/nature13025.html

[3] “Ancient Native Boy’s Genome Reignites Debate Over First Americans;”  http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/02/12/us-science-native-americans-origins-id