DNA from the remains of a toddler buried 12,600 years ago in southwestern Montana confirm that the prehistoric Clovis people were the ancestors of American Indians, researchers said.
About 80 percent of all present-day indigenous people in North and South America are direct descendants of the family of the child, a 1-year-old boy, according to a paper published today in the journal Nature. The other 20 percent are more closely related to the Clovis than any other people on earth.
Debate about the origin of America’s native people has persisted for decades. Some scientists suggested the Clovis people were a migration of Europeans who used similar-looking tools about 21,000 to 17,000 years ago. Today’s finding shows this notion “can no longer be treated as a credible alternative for Clovis (or Native American) origins,” said Jennifer Raff, a research fellow in anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin, in an editorial published with the study.
“The neat part is that it confirms so many hypotheses, including the Native American understanding of where they came from,” Raff said.
While the study suggests the Clovis were the first native people to establish themselves in the Americas, they weren’t the first humans to set foot on the continents. The Clovis arose after people arrived in America by way of the Siberian land bridge in the last ice age, which started 25,000 years ago, though they didn’t descend from Europeans, Asians, or Melanesians, the scientists said.
The boy’s mitochondrial DNA, inherited from his mother, belongs to one of the “founder” lineages that was carried by the first people who crossed from Siberia. Though the sequence is rare in present-day American Indians, it was common among the oldest inhabitants of the Americas.
Comparing his genome show he is most closely related to American Indian populations, and more related to Siberians than any other Eurasian.
“This discovery basically confirms what the tribes have never doubted: we’ve been here since time immemorial, and the objects in the ground are from our ancestors,” said Shane Doyle, a member of the Crow tribe, a historian at Montana State University and a study author.
The Clovis people, known for their distinctive spear points were first identified in 1932, near Clovis, New Mexico. The child whose genome was sequenced was buried with about 120 artifacts in Montana, a site discovered 46 years ago. He was covered in red ochre, probably as part of a funeral, and was buried with a number of spear points that predate him, suggesting they were ritual objects or heirlooms. It’s not clear how he died, the researchers said.
The study is also unusual, in that it enlisted consultants to present-day Montana tribes. The researchers plan to rebury the boy where he was found in late spring or early summer. The scientists traveled to local tribes to tell them about their discoveries and consult with them about how best to continue their research, Doyle said.
In the past, archaeologists and anthropologists created a mistrust of scientists in native communities, Doyle said. The effort to include the tribes in the finding is part of forging a new relationship between native communities and scientists.
“We want to bring American Indians to the table to guide us in the most respectful and appropriate ways to do this research,” Doyle said. “One of the things we’re trying to figure out as tribal communities is how this science can be useful to us.”