KUNMING, China — Native Americans may be able to trace their origins back to southern China, a new study suggests.
Researchers say ancient human fossils found in China belong to an extinct maternal branch of humans which Native Americans may have descended from. The discovery was made by sequencing the genome of the fossils, which are around 14,000 years-old.
Scientists compared the fossils’ genome to that of other people from around the world. The experts found that the bones belonged to an individual whose ancestry appears to have a link to the East Asian origins of Native Americans.
The team says this shows some people in Southeast Asia travelled north along the coast of China through Japan. Eventually, these intrepid humans reached Siberia before crossing the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska.
Scientists believe they were the first people to arrive in the “New World.”
Clearing up a decades-old genetic puzzle
The first steps towards making the discovery were made more than three decades ago when archaeologists in China discovered a large set of bones in the Red Deer Cave in southern China’s Yunnan Province.
Carbon dating showed that the fossils were from the Late Pleistocene era about 14,000 years ago, a period when modern humans migrated to many parts of the world. In the cave, they recovered a hominin skull cap with characteristics of both modern humans and early humans. The shape of the skull resembled that of Neanderthals while its brain appeared to be smaller than that of modern humans.
Some anthropologists at the time thought the skull probably belonged to an unknown early human species that lived until fairly recently or to a hybrid population of early and modern humans. In 2018, Chinese scientists managed to extract ancient DNA from the skull.
Genomic sequencing found the hominin belonged to an extinct maternal lineage of a group of modern humans whose surviving decedents are now found in East Asia, the Indo-China peninsula, and islands in Southeast Asia. They also found that during this period, the genes of hominins living in Southeast Asia were very diverse.
The amount of genetic diversity was greater than that found in northern East Asia during the same period. It suggests that early humans who first arrived in eastern Asia had initially settled in the south before some of them moved to the north.
An ‘important piece’ in the history of human migration
Researchers now believe the bones belong to an individual with a deep genetic connection to the East Asian ancestry of Native Americans.
“Ancient DNA technique is a really powerful tool,” says Dr. Bing Su from the Kunming Institute of Zoology in a media release.
“It tells us quite definitively that the Red Deer Cave people were modern humans instead of an archaic species, such as Neanderthals or Denisovans, despite their unusual morphological features.”
“It’s an important piece of evidence for understanding early human migration,” the researcher continues.
The team now want to sequence more ancient human DNA by using fossils from Southeast Asia, especially ones that predated the Red Deer Cave people.
“Such data will not only help us paint a more complete picture of how our ancestors migrate but also contain important information about how humans change their physical appearance by adapting to local environments over time, such as the variations in skin color in response to changes in sunlight exposure,” Dr. Su adds.
The findings are published in the journal Current Biology.
South West News service writer Gwyn Wright contributed to this report.