Two primary teeth buried deep in a remote archaeological site in northeastern Siberia have revealed a previously unknown group of people who lived there during the last Ice Age. The finding was part of a wider study that also discovered that 10,000-year-old human remains in another site in Siberia are genetically related to Native Americans, marking the first time that such close genetic links have been discovered outside the United States.
The international team of researchers has named the new people the Ancient North Siberians. The DNA was recovered from the two teeth, which were the only human remains discovered from the era, found in a large archeological site near the Yana River. Known as the Yana Rhinoceros Horn Site, the site was found in 2001 and features more than 2,500 artefacts of animal bones and ivory along with stone tools and evidence of human habitation.
The study shows that the Ancient North Siberians endured extreme conditions in the region 31,000 years ago and survived by hunting wooly mammoths, wooly rhinoceroses, and bison.
“These people were a significant part of human history. They diversified almost at the same time as the ancestors of modern day Asians and Europeans, and it’s likely that at one point they occupied large regions of the northern hemisphere,” said Eske Willerslev, PhD, professor at St. John’s College, University of Cambridge, and director of the Lundbeck Foundation Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen.
“They adapted to extreme environments very quickly and were highly mobile. These findings have changed a lot of what we thought we knew about the population history of northeastern Siberia but also what we know about the history of human migration as a whole,” said first author Dr. Martin Sikora of the Lundbeck Foundation Centre for GeoGenetics.
Researchers estimate that the population at the site would have numbered around 40 people with a wider population of around 500. Genetic analysis of the teeth revealed that the two people sequenced showed no evidence of inbreeding, which was occurring in the declining Neanderthal populations at the time.
The complex population dynamics during this period and genetic comparisons to other groups of people, both ancient and recent, are documented as part of the wider study, which analyzed 34 samples of human genomes found in ancient archaeological sites across northern Siberia and central Russia.
“Remarkably, the Ancient North Siberians people are more closely related to Europeans than Asians and seem to have migrated all the way from Western Eurasia soon after the divergence between Europeans and Asians,” said professor Laurent Excoffier, PhD, of the University of Bern.
The researchers found that the Ancient North Siberians generated the mosaic genetic makeup of contemporary people who inhabit a vast area across north Eurasia and the Americas, providing the “missing link” of understanding the genetics of Native American ancestry.
It is widely accepted that humans first made their way to the Americas from Siberia in to Alaska via a land bridge spanning the Bering Strait that was submerged at the end of the last Ice Age. The researchers were able to pinpoint some of these ancestors as Asian people groups who mixed with the Ancient North Siberians.
“We gained important insight into population isolation and admixture that took place during the depths of the Last Glacial Maximum, the coldest and harshest time of the Ice Age, and ultimately the ancestry of the peoples who would emerge from that time as the ancestors of the indigenous people of the Americas,” said professor David Meltzer, PhD, of Southern Methodist University.
The discovery was based on the DNA analysis of 10,000-year-old male remains found at a site near the Kolyma River in Siberia. The individual derives his ancestry from a mixture of Ancient North Siberian DNA and East Asian DNA, which is very similar to that found in Native Americans. It is the first time human remains this closely related to the Native American populations have been discovered outside of the United States.
“The remains are genetically very close to the ancestors of Paleo-Siberian speakers and close to the ancestors of Native Americans,” said Willerslev. “It is an important piece in the puzzle of understanding the ancestry of Native Americans, as you can see the Kolyma signature in the Native Americans and Paleo-Siberians. This individual is the missing link of Native American ancestry.”