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Who were the first Americans?

DNA analysis revealed that she was similar to Polynesians today.
DNA analysis revealed that she was similar to Polynesians today.Institutio Nacional de Anthropologia e Historia de Mexico

The ethnic identities of the first humans in the Americas and how they got there continue to create international controversies. Competing groups of academicians are increasingly firing salvos at each other via popular media in order to influence public opinion. News articles spawned by these salvos do not necessarily contain entirely factual information.

On February 12, 2014 the magazine, “Nature,” published online an article about extraction of DNA from a skeleton of a boy between 12 and 18 months old that was found in Montana. It was entitled, “The genome of a Late Pleistocene human from a Clovis burial site in western Montana.” An international team of scientists was able to extract what they believe is a complete human genome from the partially fossilized skeleton of a toddler, who lived in the Rocky Mountain region of the United States about 12,600 years ago. Authors of the article included Morten Rasmussen of the Danish Museum of Natural History, Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, Michael Waters of Texas A&M University and Shane Doyle of Montana State University.

Simultaneously, an article by Ker Than on the Clovis DNA appeared in National Geographic Online. Than described the Montana site as the “oldest known burial in North America” and proof that Native Americans today are descended from the people who made the Clovis points. The writer did not mention that in late 2013, several scientific studies were reported that had very different conclusions. He also did not interview any scientists, who challenged aspects of the report.

The next day, the highly technical article in “Nature” was summarized by AP Science Writer, Malcolm Ritter, and distributed internationally. The AP article spread like a prairie fire through North American news organizations that were looking for alternative stories to the Winter Olympics. By mid-morning of the 13th, a legion of online news web sites had picked up the article and re-written it to avoid paying license fees to the Associated Press. Typical headlines on the web read “Clovis DNA proves Alaska land bridge theory,” “All Native Americans descended from Clovis,” or “DNA taken from old known burial in Americas,” or “Clovis People are Native Americans, and from Asia, not Europe.”

The conclusions presented by the report and/or subsequent news articles were:

1. The DNA of all humans who made Clovis-style artifacts was the same as that of the toddler.

2. The scientists had extracted the oldest known human DNA in the Americas.

3. Modern Native Americans are descended from the Clovis People, but the child was most similar to the indigenous peoples of Central and South America.

4. The DNA was additional proof that the ancestors of indigenous Americans all came over a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska.

5. The DNA test markers that the child shared with Europeans were Asiatic in origin.

Article stirs up a hornet’s nest

Some statements in the original scientific report in “Nature” and the follow up articles in the media have been challenged by other geneticists, anthropologists and Native American scholars. Beyond the actual extraction of the DNA from the skeleton, they believe that several of publicized interpretations of child’s DNA profile cannot be backed up with the evidence available.

The People of One Fire is an alliance of Southeastern Native American scholars that was formed in late 2006. Subscribers to their newsletters now include many people who are not of Native American ancestry. They include anthropologists, historians and geneticists, who want to keep their ears open to the Native American perspective on issues. The academicians attempt to remain anonymous, when controversial issues are publicized. Rather than allowing their name to be published along with quotes, they provide peer-reviewed journal articles that supports their position, or perhaps, they even co-authored.

This organization frequently sends out links to interesting articles about Native American research projects. On the morning of February 13, People of One Fire subscribers were sent a link to the version of the Clovis DNA article published by CBS News.

Within a few minutes, normally silent professors and researchers began firing back comments on the article. By late morning, “Clovis DNA” had become the most controversial issue ever publicized by the People of One Fire. This was unexpected since the organization’s focus is the period between 1600 BC and 1838 AD.

A geneticist from a university in New England sent a curt email that pointed out that there are no DNA test markers for most of the indigenous tribes in North America. He questioned how the Montana Clovis team could state that their child’s DNA was probably similar to those tribes, if they didn’t even know what DNA test markers were for these tribes.

The original report mentioned the lack of DNA markers, but this information was left out of the news articles that the general public read. The Clovis DNA researchers stated that the lack of DNA information was caused by the refusal of American Indians to provide human remains for them to analyze. The New England professor stated that this was not the reason at all. The problem is that modern American Indians are so mixed up genetically that it has proved almost impossible to match them with pre-European Contact human remains. He stated, “Native Americans today are not genetically the same people, who greeted European explorers in the 1500s.”

The geneticist also challenged the statement in the “Montana Child” report which said that the European type DNA in the child originated in Siberia. He attached a very recent scientific report from Uppsala University in Sweden that was written by Dr. Pontus Skoglund. Skoglund’s studies revealed a certain type of DNA common to people in northern Scotland, southwestern Ireland, Scandinavia and American Indians, but not to East Asians. The geneticist felt that it was highly significant that this shared DNA is primarily found in persons living closest to a former ice shelf that linked Europe and North America during the last ice age.

The New Englander suspects, but currently cannot prove, that one ethnic group which became some of the ancestors of American Indians, formerly lived on both sides of the Atlantic. They had Asian features such as black hair, bronze skin and long waists, but also carried a gene that caused at least some to have blue or gray eyes. This gene might explain the blue and gray eyes seen by early explorers of eastern North America.

In support of the Pan-Atlantic theory, Dr. Gordon Freeman of the University of Alberta has determined that circular “stonehenges” were created in Canada at least 500 years before they appeared in the British Isles. The Bronze Age inhabitants of Ireland and Britain were not Celts, but a copper skinned, black haired people that the Gaelic peoples called Ciarraigh, which means dark haired people.

None of the scientists, who wrote emails, challenged the actual procedure for extracting the DNA, which was extremely complex and innovative. Several North American anthropologists welcomed the new information on Clovis, but felt that the news articles should not have presented the results of a DNA test of one skeleton to universally apply to all humans, who made Clovis artifacts.

Among several respondents there was opposition to the new articles presumption that the Clovis culture originated in Siberia and was transported to the Americas. An archaeologist in Tennessee forwarded an article by John Broster, Mark Norton, Bobby Hulan, and Ellis Durham which stated that the Cumberland River Valley of Tennessee had the greatest concentration of Clovis archaeological sites in North America.

An archaeologist in South Carolina forwarded an article by Dr. Albert Goodyear which provided extensive evidence that Clovis Culture originated in the Southeastern Piedmont or Fall Line region. He asked, “If the Clovis Culture originated in the Southeast, how could it have come across the Alaska-Siberia land bridge?”

Another archaeologist from Tennessee pointed out that about 95% of the indigenous peoples of North America died due to the impact of Europeans. Many ethnic groups with different DNA profiles may have become extinct because they were especially vulnerable to European diseases. She noted that in the Southeast there were some tribes that were extremely short, while others were much taller than Europeans. She concluded that this physiological diversity may have reflected genetic diversity.

A Chickasaw teacher from Oklahoma brought up the subject of the Kennewick Man. This was a human skeleton found on the banks of the Columbia River in Washington State several years ago. His bones were dated to about 7300 to 7600 B.C. So far scientists have not been able to extract DNA from his bones, but measurements of the skull revealed that he was closely related to either the Ainu of northern Japan or Polynesians. His closest relatives lived in east-central and southeast Asia during that era. Chemical analysis of his bones revealed that he had lived much of his life on the coast.

Latin American anthropologists challenged several statements made in the article. The Montana child did not contain the oldest known human genome in the Americas. They pointed out that DNA has been extracted from a 13,600 year old skeleton that was found in a cave in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. Her ancestry appeared to be from Southeast Asia, not Siberia, and was quite similar to modern day Polynesians. She also carried DNA typical of several Mexican indigenous peoples.

An anthropologist with the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) in Mexico read the original scientific report in “Nature.” She emphatically questioned the DNA profiles selected from Central and South America to “prove” that those of the Montana child were similar. She stated that there are significant genetic differences among the indigenous tribes of Mexico and Central America. Some are similar to the DNA profile of the Montana child. Some are not.

Several reports were forwarded to the People of One Fire from this Mexican archaeologist that were authored by Dr. José Concepción Jiménez López, Director of Antropología Física Laboratorio, at INAH. The highly respected anthropologist has extracted DNA from several skeletons found in Mexico that were older or about the same age as the Montana child, plus many more from later time periods. These DNA studies have led Mexican scientists to believe that the aboriginal people of Mexico originated in Southeast Asia and closely resembled Polynesians or Micronesians. They theorize that over time, other ethnic groups entered the region and blended with the locals to become the peoples encountered by early Spanish explorers.

Surprisingly, INAH also has evidence that some occupants of Baja California and extreme northwestern Mexico at the time of European Contact were Polynesians or part-Polynesians. However, these Polynesians apparently arrived on the Pacific Coast of Mexico about the same time that Hawaii was settled by Polynesians, around 1150 AD.

The Pericú People of extreme southern Baja California were formerly thought to be Polynesians because they shared many cultural traditions with Polynesians. However, the DNA of their skeletons was found to be similar to that of indigenous peoples in Mexico. They may have been of partial Polynesian heritage.

Evidence of Polynesian settlers or visitors on the coasts of South America and Upper California has also been found. These camp sites date from around 1300 AD to 1460 AD. During the mid-20th century, Norwegian, Thor Heyerdahl, promoted the theory that there were many cultural exchanges between the Americas and Polynesia. Several foods grown by Polynesians are indigenous to the Americas.

DNA has also been extracted from 11,000 year old skeletons found in caves on the coast of Chile and Brazil. None of these skeletons had DNA profiles closely matching the Montana child’s skeleton. Their DNA was interpreted as being similar to either the Ainu of northern Japan or Polynesians.

The book on the history of early mankind in the Americas is still being written. The pace of genetic discoveries in the Americas, Siberia and northwestern Europe seems to be accelerating. These studies often seem to be providing diametrically opposite conclusions that support one academic clique or another. The final story may be that the heritage of indigenous Americans was composed of many histories.