13,000 year old skull and mtDNA reinforces continuity between Paleoindians and Native Americans

Teenaged girl ‘Naia’ shared craniofacial features with earliest-known Americans, but genetic profile is common among today’s Native Americans

The first people to reach the New World arrived around 15,000 years ago, having migrated across the Beringia land bridge that then linked Siberia to Alaska. The Paleoindians, as they are known, possessed craniofacial features that differ markedly to those of present-day Native Americans. Their skulls were long and narrow, the face narrow and the forehead prominent. By contrast, present-day Native Americans are broad-faced, with rounder skulls. A facial reconstruction of Kennewick Man – an 8,400 year old skull found in the Columbia River, Kennewick, WA – is said to bear startling a resemblance to the actor Sir Patrick Steward.

It has therefore been suggested that there were two migrations to the New World, with the Paleoindians arriving first and later being replaced by the ancestors of the present-day Native Americans. However, others argue that the differences arose in situ, possibly as a result of changes in diet when the Paleoindians adopted agriculture during the period between 8,000 and 2,000 years ago. Another possibility is that the changes are simply the result of genetic drift.

The ‘two migrations’ theory has received a significant setback with the recovery of a near-complete human skeleton of a female aged 15 to 16 years from Hoyo Negro, a submerged collapsed chamber in the Sac Actun cave system in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. The skeleton has been nicknamed ‘Naia’ (Greek for ‘water nymph’), and it has been dated to between 12,000 and 13,000 years old.

Naia’s craniofacial features are typical of the Paleoindian morphology, but mitochondrial DNA extracted from a molar teeth has been identified as belonging to the haplogroup D1, which occurs only among present-day Native Americans. This is consistent with the view that there was continuity between Paleoindians and present-day Native Americans.

Researchers now intend to sequence Naia’s nuclear DNA, which they hope will shed further light on the origins of the first Americans.

References:

  1. Chatters, J. et al., Late Pleistocene Human Skeleton and mtDNA Link Paleoamericans and Modern Native Americans. Science 344, 750-754 (2014).
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