Future studies are needed to better understand the relationships of Inuit populations living on both sides of the Bering Strait. ©Eric Rock

When early, intrepid European explorers first began trekking through the New World in the late 1400s, they were awed by the strikingly different cultures they encountered. But they also came to notice something else: remarkable physical similarities between the Asian peoples they had seen during their many travels and these new, soon-to-be-known-as “Native Americans.”

Now, some genetic evidence is showing these observant, long-ago explorers weren’t too far off the mark. DNA analysis of ethnic groups living in the Altay Mountains of southern Siberia have revealed a unique genetic mutation that also occurs in modern-day northern Native Americans.

So while an Asian-Native American biological connection has long been suspected, this could be the first hard evidence we have that pinpoints where our country’s indigenous peoples originated, suggesting their true genetic “homeland.”

Bridging a genetic gap

DNA samples were taken from almost 2,500 Native Americans in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. ©Eric Rock

This evidence was recently reported in a National Geographic “Daily News” article. As part of their ongoing genetic research, the study’s authors, Theodore Schurr, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and his colleagues—including Dr. Ludmila Osipova of Russia’s Institute of Cytology and Genetics—had previously taken DNA samples from almost 2,500 Native Americans in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Then, between 1991 and 2003, the team traveled to ethnic villages in the Altay region to collect DNA samples from nearly 500 people, many of whom were living in remote areas and who had never met Americans.

While comparing the Altay peoples’ and Native Americans’ DNA materials, the scientists focused on two parts of the human genome: mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down through mothers; and the Y chromosome, which is passed down through fathers. Over time, mutations accumulate in these parts of the genetic code, which can help scientists determine when populations branched off and migrated to new places.

In the case of the Altay people, researchers found a genetic mutation in one paternal lineage that arose about 18,000 years ago—a marker that’s also found in present-day Native Americans. This finding coincides with previous studies that found a shared mutation in the two groups’ mtDNA, one that arose at about the same time as the newfound Y chromosome mutation.

This timeline fits with other, previous genetic research that shows that the Altay people began to drift toward North America around 15,000 years ago, probably reaching the North American continent by way of the now submerged Beringia land bridge.

Some say the genetic marker is better explained by back-migration of males from North America to Siberia, with subsequent gene flow across Asia. ©Brad Josephs

Flowing back

However, researchers Michael Hammer and Tatiana Karafet of the Laboratory of Molecular Systematics and Evolution at the University of Arizona say they have been studying the geographic distribution of a Y chromosome marker, but the combination of the genetic evidence along with ethnohistorical data on these populations has led them to a different conclusion.

Hammer and Karafet state that while future studies are needed to better understand the relationships of Native American and Siberian populations (especially Inuit populations living on both sides of the Bering Strait), the genetic marker found in Siberian peoples is better explained by back-migration of males from North America to Siberia, with subsequent gene flow across Asia.

Even with today’s scientific techniques, piecing together human migration patterns can be complex. But one thing’s for sure: the early explorers had it right. We are all, at our core, wanderers—the strong call to explore is just probably part of our DNA.

Here’s to your adventures, in whatever corner of the world you find them,

Candy