The first people to live in the Americas migrated from Siberia over the Bering Land Bridge over 20,000 years ago. Some made their way as far south as Tierra del Fuego, at the tip of South America. Others settled much closer to their original homeland where their descendants still thrive today.
In “A paleogenome from a Holocene individual supporting genetic continuity in southeastern Alaska,” published in the journal iScienceCharlotte Lindqvist, an evolutionary biologist at the University at Buffalo, and her collaborators, using analyzes of ancient genetic data, show that some Alaskan Natives still live in exactly the same place as their ancestors about 3,000 years ago.
Lindqvist, PhD, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences in the University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences, and lead author of the paper. In the course of her extensive studies in Alaska, she explored mammal remains that were found in a cave on the state’s southeastern coast. One bone was initially identified as coming from a bear. However, genetic analysis showed that they are the remains of a human female.
“We realized that the modern indigenous peoples of Alaska, if they had stayed in the area since the first migrations, could be related to this prehistoric individual,” says Albert Akil, PhD, UCLA. student in biological sciences and first author of the paper. The discovery has led to efforts to solve this mystery, which DNA analyzes are well-suited to addressing when archaeological remains are as sparse as this one.
Learning from grandfather
The first peoples had already begun moving south along the Pacific Northwest coast before the inland route between the ice sheets became viable. Some, including the woman from the cave, have made their home in the area around the Gulf of Alaska. This region is now home to the Tlingit nation and three other groups: Haida, Tsimshian, and Nisga’a.
As Akil and her colleagues analyzed the genome of this 3,000-year-old individual—”research that wouldn’t have been possible just 20 years ago,” Lindqvist notes—they determined that they were the closest thing to the Alaskan Natives living in the area today. This fact showed that it was necessary to document as accurately as possible any genetic links of ancient females to present-day Native Americans.
In such endeavors, it is important to cooperate closely with the people who live in the lands where archaeological remains have been found. Therefore, cooperation between Alaskan Native peoples and the scientific community was an important component of the cave exploration that took place in the region. The Wrangell Cooperative named the ancient individual analyzed in this study “Tatóok yík yées sháawat” (Young Lady in the Cave).
Genetic continuity has persisted in southeastern Alaska for thousands of years
Indeed, Akil and Lindqvist’s research has shown that the Tatóok yík yées sháawat are in fact closest to the present-day Tlingit peoples and those of the neighboring tribes along the coast. So their research reinforces the idea that genetic continuity in southeastern Alaska has persisted for thousands of years.
Human migration to North America, although it began about 24,000 years ago, came in waves—one of them around 6,000 years ago—involved the Paleo-Inuit, formerly known as the Paleo-Eskimo. Important to understanding indigenous migrations from Asia, the DNA of Tatóok yík yées sháawat did not reveal an ancestry from the second wave of settlers, the Paleo-Inuit. Indeed, the analyzes by Akil and Lindqvist have helped illuminate the ongoing discussion of migratory routes, admixtures of people of these different waves, as well as recent regional patterns of pre-colonial inland and coastal populations of the Pacific Northwest.
Oral history connects an old woman with the people living in southeastern Alaska today
The indigenous oral accounts of the Tlingit people include the story of the most recent eruption of Mount Edgecumbe, which would place them exactly in the area 4,500 years ago. Therefore, their relative Tatóok yík yées sháawat informs not only modern anthropological researchers, but also the Tlingit people themselves.
In respect of the right of the Tlingit people to control and protect their cultural heritage and genetic resources, data from the Tatóok yík yées sháawat study will only be available after a review of their use by the Wrangel Cooperative Tribal Council.
“It is very exciting that we are contributing to our knowledge of the prehistory of Southeast Alaska,” Akil said.
Albert Akil et al., Paleogenome of a Holocene individual supporting genetic continuity in southeastern Alaska, iScience (2023). DOI: 10.1016/j.isci.2023.106581
the quote: Search for Ancient Alaskan Cave Bears Leads to Important Human Discovery (2023, April 24) Retrieved April 24, 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-04-ancient-alaskan-cave-important-human. programming language
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