Friday, May 30, 2008

The frozen north and the first Eskimos

In this week's online edition of Science, a team of researchers from Greenland, Denmark, and other European laboratories report on the first (nearly) complete sequence of ancient mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is found not in the cell nucleus but inside small cellular subunits called mitochondria--which supply energy to living cells. It is inherited only on the maternal line, and researchers use it to trace the worldwide migrational movements of prehistoric peoples over thousands of years.

The paper (abstract available here, full access requires an individual or institutional subscription) is particularly interesting, however, because the mtDNA was extracted from the hair of a so-called Paleo-Eskimo who lived on the west coast of Greenland roughly 4000 years ago. As I point out in an accompanying news article in Science (sorry, same restrictions apply, but you can read Nicholas Wades' account in the New York Times), the DNA sequence of this particular individual is unrelated to both Native Americans and today's Eskimos (such as the Inuit who live in Greenland now), and is also unrelated to the immediate ancestors of today's Eskimos, the so-called Neo-Eskimos, who moved across the Arctic Circle from Asia beginning about 1000 years ago (we have some partial mtDNA sequences from Neo-Eskimos taken from other excavations in the Arctic.)

If the findings can be confirmed from ancient DNA from other Paleo-Eskimos (and the research team, led by Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen, is hoping to do just that) it would mean that the very first Eskimos did not derive from the Asian populations that gave rise to the first Americans more than 13,000 years ago, nor were they the ancestors of today's Eskimos. Rather, the DNA evidence suggests that they were an entirely separate group whose ancestors lived in the Bering Sea area. The researchers come to this conclusion because the mtDNA from the hair contains a genetic marker very similar to that found today in small groups that live in the Bering Sea area, such as the Aleuts and a group of Siberian Eskimos.

If that all sounds complicated, it is! But the new study might help to untangle some of the roots, as it were, of the first humans who ventured into the frozen north--even if they left no living descendants.


Update: National Public Radio's site has an interview with the paper's lead author, Tom Gilbert, that is well worth listening to.


Joseph Caputo said...

Wow, that's intense. It seems like a lot of these earliest American discoveries have been happening all at once. Did something change in the research or has it just been good luck?

Michael Balter said...

That's a good question, there has been a flurry of reports. Two of the most important recent ones are from Eske Willerslev's group at the University of Copenhagen(his main ancient DNA man there is Tom Gilbert.) Willerslev, who was profiled in Science a year or so ago, has a wide range of interests and so far everything he has touched has turned to research gold! The other thing fueling the latest work is the debate between so-called "Clovis first" and "pre-Clovis" paradigms about the earliest peopling of the Americas, which I wrote about in the blog post entitled "The multimedia scoop on prehistoric poop" (Joe, perhaps you can tell me how to make the URL for that post fit in this comments section, which I don't seem to be able to do!)

Anne Gilbert said...

I want to thank Michael for featuring this. Though this is not my main interest, I have always wondered who these "Dorset people" actually were, if they weren't Eskimo/Inuit people. Now, perhaps, we may know. BTW, I have decided to link this blog to mine, which is called The Writer's Daily Grind and can be found at: in case anyone is interested. I think this is an excellent blog, for a variety of reasons, and I want to give it some publicity.
Anne G

GM Roper said...

Michael, if you NEVER published your liberal cant and stuck to this fascinating stuff every day I'd quit blogging and just read here. So, two questions. Clovis of course refers to Clovis Points and where they were first discovered. Question one... are clovis points the EARLIEST indicators of tool making of the sharpened flint (stone?) variety? and Question two... What ever happened to the Kennewick man (a 9400 year old caucasoid) found on the west coast? Is there any migratory relationship between the first eskimos (I assume the first were totally unrelated to the Innuit) and the migration patterns of whereever the Kennewick man first came from.

email me at gmroper at yahoo dot com and I'll send you back the codes for getting the link in your comments The Multimedia Scoop on Prehistoric Poop

Michael Balter said...

GM, sharpened stone tools are found at so-called pre-Clovis sites, but they do not show the elegant fluted form of Clovis points.

Assuming that Kennewick Man is representative of the wave of migration that swept the Americas from Asia, the paleo-Eskimos would not be related to him.

I need to correct the statement that Kennewick Man is "caucasoid" in its features. First of all, this is not at all sure even on conventional cranial grounds, even though certain commentators have made a big deal out of this. Second, Kennewick Man dates at least 4000 years after the earliest Clovis culture Native Americans, and could easily fit withint the variation seen in early Native American skulls which is significant and cannot be classified in traditional Asian terms. Kris Hirst, the archaeologist who runs the About Archaeology site, discusses this here:

well, as you can see I need those codes to get the URL here, so will email you for them; meanwhile just Google About Archaeology and Kennewick Man and you will get the article.

Woody said...

Archeological evidence indicates that these people migrated to North America to escape high taxes.

Interesting post.

Anne Gilbert said...

"Peopling of the Americas" issues are something about which I am not particularly knowledgeable. However, I have seen it suggested that Kennewick Man, whowever he was, came from a group of people who are related to the Ainu of Japan's Hokkaido Island. If these "paleo-Eskimos" are also possibly related to whatever group pf people gave us Kennewick Man, then possibly they're related to the Ainu, too? Or the Ainu came from the same place as the Paleo-Eskimos? Or it was some ancient group that split up and wandered in different directions? The more answers we seem to get, the more questions it seems to raise.
Anne G