‘Archaeogenetics’ and the Ancient Beringians

‘Archaeogenetics’, the study of ancient DNA, has opened the door to further understanding Earth’s complex history through examination of humans, animals, and plants. With DNA being a dependable ‘artifact’ in itself, archaeologists can learn much more about the people who once populated the sites they examine.

Many know the story of how North America was “discovered” by white, European explorers, but the origins of the Native Americans they drove away has continued to remain a bit nebulous. However, in 2013, the body of a young girl recovered from a burial pit in Alaska assists in reaching an answer about their origin; the significance lies in her DNA that, when analyzed in 2017, matched Native Americans as well as “ancient north Eurasians who lived in what is now Siberia” (Sample).

Archaeologists at the Upward River Sun site in Alaska where the body of the ancient Beringian girl, named “Xach’itee’aanenh t’eede gaay” (“sunrise-child girl”), was found (Sample).

Examining ancient DNA is complex and often cannot be done, as genetic material degrades easily. Viviane Slon of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology explains, “not every fossil will yield DNA, and not every fossil will yield enough DNA to reconstruct a full genome” (Moscato). In fact, “the best environments for preserving DNA tend to be cold, dry and stable over long time periods” (Moscato), like that of Alaska.

The body of this young girl yields support of the early Native Americans traveling to America by way of East Asia (Sample). Because ice caps held so much of the ocean’s water during the Ice Age, an open land bridge spanned from Russia to Alaska where the Bering Strait is currently (Tamm; Sample; Renfrew and Bahn 140). The land bridge, called Beringia, housed people from East Asia in addition to acting as a “byway” to a new land.

However, geneticists realized that the remains of the girl recovered were genetically different from modern Native Americans, proving the existence of the previously unknown “ancient Beringians” (Sample). About 34,000 years ago, a group of individuals began to separate from the Asians. By 20,000 years ago, today’s Native American ancestors split off from the ancient Beringians, heading into now-North America and forming the “northern and southern branches” all Native Americans trace back to (Strickland; Moreno-Mayar; Tamm).

This diagram details the formation of Native American populations from early ancestors — Ancient Beringians split off from Ancestral Native Americans about 20,000 years ago with their subsequent movement unknown.

Inevitably, the limits of understanding the people of the past become apparent as there is a shortage of tangible proof of ancient Beringians being on Beringia and where they went after. One can only answer so many questions without exhibiting more speculation than corroborated truth. It is like constructing the outside frame of a puzzle, but not having many connecting pieces on the inside. The traces of ancient Beringians are waiting to be discovered and shared with the world to provide answers about this incredible, lost community.

Works Cited

Cohen, Jennie. “Native Americans Hailed From Siberian Highlands, DNA Reveals.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 26 Jan. 2012, www.history.com/news/native-americans-hailed-from-siberian-highlands-dna-reveals.

Moreno-Mayar, J. Víctor, et al. “Terminal Pleistocene Alaskan Genome Reveals First Founding Population of Native Americans.” Nature, vol. 553, no. 7687, 2018, pp. 203–207., doi:10.1038/nature25173.

Moscato, David. “The Incredible Science of Ancient DNA.” Earth Touch News Network, Earth Touch, 6 Feb. 2018, www.earthtouchnews.com/natural-world/how-it-works/the-incredible-science-of-ancient-dna/.

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul G. Bahn. Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, Practice. 3rd ed., Thames & Hudson, 2015.

Sample, Ian. “Surprise as DNA Reveals New Group of Native Americans: the Ancient Beringians.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 3 Jan. 2018, www.theguardian.com/science/2018/jan/03/ancient-dna-reveals-previously-unknown-group-of-native-americans-ancient-beringians.

Strickland, Ashley. “11,500-Year-Old Infant Remains Reveal Ancient Population.” CNN, Cable News Network, 5 Jan. 2018, www.cnn.com/2018/01/05/health/ancient-population-discovery-alaska-trnd/index.html.

Tamm, Erika, et al. “Beringian Standstill and Spread of Native American Founders.” PLoS ONE, vol. 2, no. 9, 2007, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000829.






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2 thoughts on “‘Archaeogenetics’ and the Ancient Beringians

  1. the use of aDNA in archaeology is a fantastic scientific advancement that helps us date/understand the past, but I wanted to talk a bit about the politics of this article and the idea of Beringia in general. How do you think Native peoples feel about the DNA of this girl being used? And does this type of study matter to them? What does oral history and tradition tell us that can add to our understanding of origins? Every Native group has an oral history that is often ignored by science because it doesn’t fall under what we consider ’empirical evidence.’ Would our understandings benefit from these additions?

    • I don’t believe that Native Americans are the happiest with this girl’s DNA going through examination as she was laid to rest merely to be disturbed. “For scientists who want to study historical DNA, they have to remove a piece of the dead body. It’s a small piece, but DNA analysis is almost always destructive” (Eveleth). As Nick Tipon, of the Sacred Sites Committee of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, points out, historical DNA analysis isn’t specifically a tribal issue, but goes on to ask, “How would current people feel if their great-great-grandfathers were dug up and their bones were destroyed during testing to prove a theory?” (Eveleth).

      The theory of Beringia inevitably does not please everyone. As Cecily Hilleary of VOA News writes, “some Native Americans are irked by the theory, which they say is simplistic and culturally biased” (Hilleary). Joe Watkins, an anthropologist at the National Park Service and member of the Choctaw Nation admits that “[t]he deep time depth and the possibility of multiple interpretations [that oral histories possess] seem to make scientists uncomfortable.” What Watkins is saying is that not every “tribal tradition is ‘true’” (Hilleary), but this is not to say all traditions should be neglected.

      I feel that the science at work here undeniably points towards Native Americans once being present on Beringia, but one investigating this should look towards oral traditions to see if anything a group states about their origins correlates. For example, the Blackfoot group of Montana asserts “the first Indians lived on the other side of the ocean, but their creator decided to take them to a better place” (Hilleary). This story of origin makes sense given what has been uncovered. I think that archaeologists would experience no loss in considering the stories that have been passed down through generations in the Native American community. Science, however, when coming into the equation, begins to take the nebulosity out of the equation, potentially going against where one group has believed their origins lie.

      There is no problem with the use of oral traditions by Native Americans, but I believe that if they were to work with science, it would be more respectful and helpful to those investigating their pasts.

      Works Cited:

      Eveleth, Rose. “Genetic Testing and Tribal Identity.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 27 Jan. 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/01/the-cultural-limitations-of-genetic-testing/384740/.

      Hilleary, Cecily. “Native Americans Call For Rethink of Bering Strait Theory.” VOA, VOA, 19 June 2017, http://www.voanews.com/a/native-americans-call-for-rethink-of-bering-strait-theory/3901792.html.

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