Published on Friday Feb 3
Sometimes Jesuit priests just get it right.
In the 1580s, Jesuit priest José de Acosta published an article hypothesizing that that Native Americans reached the North America continent through some type of land bridge in eastern Russia.
Nearly 450 years later, his hypothesis holds and has recently been aided by DNA fingerprinting linking Native Americans to the Altai Region of Siberia.
Native Americans, originally called “Indians” by Columbus, who was a tad confused as to what continent he had landed on, have been linked to the Asiatic region for centuries now. Yet disputes over when they crossed the Bering Strait, which group of Asians they were related to, and which group was the first to cross, continued to battle it out in the footnotes and dry pages of academia.
The theory of the Settlement of the Americas, which postulates that Native Americans crossed from Asia to America 16,500 and 13,000 years ago, has been widely accepted since the 1930s. The theory revolves around the idea that Siberia was once connected to Alaska by a strip of land called the Bering land bridge.
The Clovis Indians, with their infamous Clovis point arrowheads, were thought to have been the first to migrate from Asia to America at the end of the last glacial period.
By the 1950s, many anthropologists and archeologists had started citing blood work as evidence of the theory of the Settlement of the Americas. It was discovered that blood type O was predominant in South America, while blood type A was predominant in North America among indigenous peoples. Anthropologists also used skull analysis to link Native American and Asian groups.
In 1973, British scientist and host of the show The Ascent of Man, Jacob Bronowski, speculated that there must have been two different times of migration to the Americas. He claimed the first group to come was the type O blood group, while type A followed in the coming years. This evidence of earlier habitation was quickly supported by sites found in areas across North and South America. The advent of carbon dating further dappled the Settlement theory, revealing that some Native American tools were upwards of 25,000 years old.
While the multiple migration theory has since been accepted, the debate regarding Native American Asiatic origins has waged on into the 21st century.
A recent publication by a team of University of Pennsylvania anthropologists published in the American Journal of Human Genetics has a good chance to cool the century-long debate.
By looking at genetic variations in Altaian populations, the team discovered a unique mutation in two types of DNA shared by Native Americans and Southern Altaians.
Anchoring a border between Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan, the Altai Republic holds a diverse past has been a meeting place between various ethnic groups for thousands of years. The Altai Mountains span from Russia to the Gobi Desert, and it is thought that the region is the original location of the Turkic body of languages.
Working with Ludmilla Osipova, a researcher at the institute of Cytology and Genetics in Russia, the team has discovered similarities between Native America and South Altaians in mitochondrial DNA, passed maternally, and the Y chromosome, which is passed paternally.
The group collected 1,500 DNA samples from Native Americans and 750 samples from people in the Altai region. The findings are highly accurate given the large number of gene markers examined for the study.
While there have been smaller studies conducted since the end of the 1990s showing genetic correlations between people of the southern Siberian regions and Native Americans, this particular study is unique in the amount of samples taken. “We’re using hundreds of markers to find genetic regions [which means] the mutation we get is much larger,” said Theodore Schurr, one of the study’s authors.
The team hopes to conduct further studies in the region using high-resolution methods. By potentially ending a century old debate, further research can now be undertaken in the Altai regions of Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China, shedding more light on the relation between this unique region of Asia and the origins of Native Americans.