First Explorers: The Siberia-Native American Connection

Candice Gaukel Andrews February 28, 2012 10

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,



  1. Barry W. March 7, 2012 at 11:46 am - Reply

    The scientific data is getting more and more complex with every new excavation. A recent article in Scientific American of November 2011 testifies of a way older migration into the New World than until recently believed (Clovis culture, 13,000 years ago). That is really interesting, because there are only a few moments in geological history that man could have been able to cross the Bering Strait. So an archeaological find just years older than this last opportunity, implies immediately a migration thousands years earlier.

    It is tempting to apply our present day pace of life to those prehistoric era’s and picture a rapid exploration and occupation of the new continent by small hunter/ gatherer bands on foot and be baffeld by their achievements. It might be a pitfall to compare this expansion with our present day need to travel the world for tourism or business purposes.
    I like to think that the Indians occupied the America’s in a period of millenia. Just generation on generation that was moving in various paces slowly southwards. There may have been a big push now and then, due to a catastrophy, a famine, earthquake, war, volcanic eruption, or something. But I would think that most generations had a very set territory, in which they moved around and were aware of every tree, plant and animal that lived there. If you see modern day nomadic people, you’d see that they don’t explore new territories as much as they just follow migration patterns of the local game or cattle they rely on. In a harsh environment migration routes tend to be longer than in rich, temperate zones.

    That is hard to compare with the pace we travel with nowadays, where people easily experience the blazing heat of the Australian dessert and the Arctic cold of Canada in a single day, just for the sake of entertainment. There may be a similarity, but instead of game and cattle civilised man follows the money.

    Stone age nomads would have had time to physically adapt to different climate zones and new vegetation and fauna. Probably without hardly realizing the place they called home, changed at all. And thus having the notion that their people have inhabited their land since time immemorial, that gives them the legacy to a homeland, culture and language that deserves our respect and protection.

  2. Travis March 6, 2012 at 6:29 pm - Reply

    Sounds like the research that led to the Genghis Khan paternity findings!

  3. James Beard aka Noodin March 2, 2012 at 5:58 pm - Reply

    Really nice article Candice. I still think we will find out more. A lot of unanswered factors still exist and the genetic factor is only one pointer, albeit a strong one. It is interesting to hear the back migration theory as well. My native brothers often point out to me how people have come here from other places in their stories for thousands of years.

  4. Barbara February 29, 2012 at 7:44 pm - Reply


  5. Patrizia February 29, 2012 at 1:18 pm - Reply

    Very interesting. I knew of studies on the connection between Zuni people and people in Japan. Thanks for posting!

  6. Jim Flowers February 29, 2012 at 11:57 am - Reply

    Brilliant article, Candice

  7. L. T. February 29, 2012 at 6:18 am - Reply

    I’m a PhD c in Pre-Revolutionary Russian History and my tutor at the Vienna University, prof. Andreas Kappeler, is an expert of multiethnic Russia. I’ve read your piece and found it very interesting. I’m currently writing a paper on Siberian history and I will quote your piece.

  8. Emily M. February 29, 2012 at 6:17 am - Reply

    Very interesting. Thank you for posting. Understanding the people of the places we travel is as exciting as their environment.

  9. Phileas French February 29, 2012 at 6:16 am - Reply

    Fascinating, what a great article.

  10. Eileen A. February 28, 2012 at 9:49 am - Reply

    Hi Candice ~ I try to follow this stuff too. A few years back I did a paper on the TransAtlantic Migration of the PaleoIndians based on the Solutrean-Clovis connection of flint tools found in France and Spain. The Solutreans of 20,000 years ago were fearless hunters noted for their beautifully made, symmetrical, bifacially flaked projectile points, the finest examples of flint workmanship of the Paleolithic in Western Europe.

    Besides France, Solutrean points have turned up notably in Spain, Hungary, Russia and the United States. Dennis Stanford, chairman of the Anthropology Department at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian has been the leading proponent of the Clovis-Solutrean theory of transatlantic migration of Paleo Indians.

    The Clovis culture is a prehistoric Native American culture that appears in the North American archeological record around 13,500 years ago at the end of the last ice ago. They are named for their artifacts found near Clovis, New Mexico.

    According to Stanford, its thought that the Clovis bifacial technology originated in Europe,but most of the classic Paleolithic cultures of Eurasia used unifacial points. There were very few bifacial technologies in Europe and one of them were the Solutrean. Kent State University archeologist Kenneth Tankersely has said “There are only two places in the world and two times that this technology appears – Solutrean and Clovis.”

    VERY interesting subject, thanks for posting it, Candice!

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