Ice Age Infant’s Genes Show That Native Americans First Came From Asia

An archaeological discovery sheds light on the origins of Native Americans—and does so while respecting their heritage

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Sarah L. Anzick

Ancient stone, bone and elkhorn tools were found at the Anzick-1 burial site

Toward the end of the last Ice Age, a baby boy, a year and a half old at most, was buried with great ceremony in central Montana, his body covered with spear points and tools made of stone, bone and elk horn sprinkled ceremonially with red ochre. He lay undisturbed for 12,500 years or so, until workmen quarrying stone for a new school found his grave on land owned by Melvyn and Helena Anzick.

The Anzicks knew the discovery could be important, so they contacted an archaeologist—and a new paper in Nature has now made it clear just how important the infant, now known as Anzick-1, really is. A genetic analysis of his remains shows that the child’s genome is more closely related to modern Native Americans than to any other group. “He was part of the population that is ancestral to perhaps 80% of Native American people,” said Eske Willerslev, of the University of Copenhagen, one of the paper’s co-authors, in a press briefing. “And the rest are his cousins.”

His genome also says clearly that Anzick-1’s ancestors came from Asia, and from Siberia in particular. That’s not a huge surprise, since the spread of humans into North and South America—the last continents to be populated by Homo sapiens—has long been believed to have come mostly from that direction.

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But a theory known as the “Solutrean hypothesis” holds that at least some of the earliest Americans came across the Atlantic instead. The evidence: stone tools that resemble those found in prehistoric European sites. These tools, first found near Clovis, New Mexico in the 1920s, were later found in multiple sites in the American West, including the Anzick site—and the people who made them were regarded for decades as the earliest humans in the New World.

The idea that the Clovis people were the first Americans has since been demolished by discoveries of significantly older artifacts at sites ranging from Pennsylvania to Chile. And now the idea that the makers of Clovis tools were European appears dead as well. Anzick-1’s genome is the only one known from a skeleton directly associated with Clovis artifacts—and since it’s clearly Asian in heritage, so, almost certainly, were the toolmakers.

That’s the scientific story, but there’s more to this research than just science. For one thing, the genomic analysis of Anzick-1 was carried out by Sarah Anzick, daughter of Melvyn and Helena and now a professional geneticist (her affiliation on the Nature paper reads “Anzick Family”). “I was a small child when the burial site was found on my parents’ farm,” she said at the briefing. “As a steward of the remains and someone with training in genomics, it’s especially appropriate that I’m involved in this research.”

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For another, the scientists took special care to show respect for Native Americans who currently live in Montana. “Historically,” said Shane Doyle, a professor of Native American Studies at Montana State University, a member of the Crow tribe, and a co-author on the paper, “there’s been a lot of abuse by anthropologists of tribal communities, especially in the 19th century.”

But there are recent examples as well: the excavation and study of the so-called Kennewick Man, found in Washington state about a decade ago, triggered outrage among local Native Americans who said the scientists were violating the remains of their ancestor—and while there was no proof that this was literally true, the metaphorical truth was enough to cause serious controversy. “If someone said to me, ‘I’m sorry, you’re not descended from the Vikings,’ it wouldn’t ruin my day,” Willerslev said. But thanks to his prior work in studying the Australian aboriginal genome, he said, “it became clear to me how important to the past is to these peoples.”

In this case, said Doyle, “I took Eske around to meet with tribal people throughout the state, sharing this discovery, getting feedback. And a little respect, it turns out, can go a long way. “For most of the Indians I’ve spoken to,” said Doyle, “the most common response is interest, contemplation, awe for the discovery.”

It clearly doesn’t hurt that the scientists and the Anzick family have agreed that the remains will be re-buried. Keeping the bones in the lab indefinitely could lead to more discoveries, say the researchers, but they’re willing to give that up. “We expect to put him back where he was found,” said Doyle, by late spring or early summer of this year.” So after a brief pause, Anzick-1’s millennia old rest will go on.

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