12,500-year-old remains providing science with more theories about First Nations in America

From TheStar.com

What a 12,500-year-old toddler says about the mystery surrounding Native American origins

Nature study sequenced genome of 12,500 year old boy discovered buried with Clovis spear points, the first ancient American genome ever sequenced

The site in Montana where stone tools with distinctive Clovis features and the 12,500-year-old skeleton of a child were discovered. The child's genome has been sequenced, uncovering new information about the first people in the Americas.


The site in Montana where stone tools with distinctive Clovis features and the 12,500-year-old skeleton of a child were discovered. The child's genome has been sequenced, uncovering new information about the first people in the Americas.

By:  Science and Technology reporter, Published on Wed Feb 12 2014

The little boy was no more than 18 months old when he was buried 12,500 years ago in what is now Montana. His body was covered in red ochre, and so were the tools found on top of him - tools that bear the distinctive marks of the Clovis culture.

Clovis artifacts scattered across the U.S., Canada and Mexico are the oldest widespread evidence of human habitation in the Americas. But the history of the people who made them has been a matter of intense debate. What is their relationship to Native Americans living today? And where did they originally come from: East Asia and Siberia, as most scientists believe, or from southwestern Europe, as a more controversial theory holds?

By sequencing the genome of the ochre-covered little boy - the first ever of an ancient American - researchers have answered these questions, helped shed light on the genetic history of Native Americans, and generated a few new mysteries to boot.

"It's almost like finding a missing link, which is really incredible, because I always learned in school you never find a missing link," said Eske Willerslev, director of the Center for Geogenetics and lead author of the study, which is published in Thursday's issue of Nature.

The ochre boy's remains were found in 1968 by a construction worker clearing a hill at the Anzick family ranch near Wilsall, Montana, a site that sits in a basin between two Rocky Mountains.

More than 100 stone blades with distinctive Clovis features were stacked like cards above the bones. So were a handful of wand-like rods of antler, at least one from a rare elk. Everything was stained with deep iron-red dust.

Because only pieces of the boy's skull and clavicle were found, scientists don't know how he died or anything else about him. But there are hints he was special: some of the tools buried with him were much older than his remains and may have been heirlooms. They appear to have been purposely snapped.

His is the only skeleton ever found that can be linked to Clovis artifacts. Researchers, including Sarah Anzick, who was just a child when the boy was discovered on her family's farm and who is now a genetic scientist, were anxious to learn more about him. That goal was made possible by advances in genetic technology.

Initial testing found that his mitochondrial DNA haplogroup - information that reveals maternal lineage - was D4h3a, a group only ever discovered in Native Americans. Contemporary people with the D4h3a haplogroup, while rare, mostly live along the Pacific Coast in North and South America.

The researchers then sequenced the boy's nuclear DNA and compared his genetic affinity to 143 modern populations, including 52 Native American ones. They also analyzed the boy's DNA against a 24,000-year-old Siberian child whose sequenced genome was published in November and two other ancient humans from China and Greenland.

The results showed that all Native Americans are effectively direct descendants of the people who made Clovis tools and buried the ochre boy. The study also supports the theory that an East Asian and a Siberian group intermingled before crossing over into North America, refuting the hypothesis that Clovis came from Europe.

"This discovery basically confirms what tribes have never really doubted: that we've been here since time immemorial, and that all the artifacts and objects in the ground are remnants of our direct ancestors," says Shane Doyle, a study co-author and a member of the Crow tribe of Montana.

Interestingly, however, the boy shared less genetic history with seven groups from Northern Canada and the Arctic, and more with groups from central and South America. Different theories could explain this, but Willerslev believes that the wave of people who entered America split into two groups early on.

One family went south and developed the culture we associate with Clovis tools. About the group that remained north, we know nothing - until more skeletons or artifacts are discovered. This theory could, however, explain the spear points and fossilized human excrement discovered at Paisley Caves in Oregon that dates to pre-Clovis times.

Nick Patterson, a senior scientist at the Broad Institute who has studied early human genetic history, called the research "excellent," and added: "I don't think it changes the big picture, but it fills in some details."

Dennis Stanford, author of Across Atlantic Ice, a book that argues the Clovis technology and people came from Spain and France, dismissed the study. He questioned whether the boy was really Clovis, since his burial site was initially excavated improperly by amateurs.

Willerslev and his colleagues, cognizant that generations of past researchers had made off with Native American remains and artifacts in the name of science, met in person with tribal people and elders in Montana before embarking on this study. The Native Americans were supportive of the research, the scientists said, but asked again and again for the ochre boy to be reburied. Come springtime, the team will do exactly that.

"We've gotten a tremendous amount of information," said Doyle. "This boy has gifted us far more than anyone could have ever dreamed of, and now it's time to put him back to rest."