World's Oldest Natural Mummy Identified by DNA

World's Oldest Natural Mummy Identified by DNA

Scientists discovered the ancient human skeleton known as the “Spirit Cave Mummy” back in 1940, hidden in a small rocky cave in the Great Basin Desert in northwest Nevada. But it wouldn’t be until the 1990s that radiocarbon dating techniques revealed the skeleton was some 10,600 years old, making it the oldest natural mummy ever found.

After a long legal battle, advanced DNA sequencing revealed the Spirit Cave Mummy is related to a modern Native American tribe, which has long claimed the cave as part of its ancestral homeland. The mummy has now been definitively linked to the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe of Nevada.

The striking discovery came as part of a groundbreaking genetic study, published in Science magazine, which analyzed several controversial ancient remains found from Alaska to Patagonia. Its findings are enabling scientists to track the movements of early human groups as they spread quickly across the Americas during the Ice Age.

The new study also challenges the longstanding theory that a different group, known as Paleoamericans, may have populated North America before Native Americans did. As part of the new study, the researchers sequenced the DNA of a group of 10,400-year-old human remains found at Lagoa Santa, Brazil in the 19th century. Earlier studies based on cranial morphology—or examination of the skulls’ shape—had led to the theory that the Lagoa Santa skeletons could not be Native American because their skull shapes were different.

“Our study proves that Spirit Cave and Lagoa Santa were actually genetically closer to contemporary Native Americans than to any other ancient or contemporary group sequenced to date,” study leader Eske Willeslev of University of Cambridge and the University of Copenhagen, said in a press release.

"Looking at the bumps and shapes of a head does not help you understand the true genetic ancestry of a population,” Willeslev added. “We have proved that you can have people who look very different but are closely related."

In addition to the Spirit Cave and Lagoa Santa remains, the study also analyzed DNA from the Lovelock skeletons (also from Nevada), an Inca mummy and the 9,000-year-old milk tooth of a young girl found in Trail Creek Cave in Alaska.

The legal battle over the fate of the Spirit Cave Mummy goes back to 2000, when the U.S. Bureau of Land Management decided against repatriating the remains. The Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe sued the government for violating the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and a district court judge urged the BLM to reconsider. The case dragged on until 2015, when the tribe allowed Willerslev and his team to conduct genome sequencing on DNA extracted from the mummy’s skull.

After the DNA analysis proved the mummy was in fact related to present-day Native Americans, the skeleton was returned to the tribe in 2016. Reburied in a private ceremony in 2018, the Spirit Cave Mummy is now finally at rest among his modern-day descendants.


Genetic Analysis Of World’s Oldest Natural Mummy Changes What We Know About Native American History

Advanced genetic testing of some of North and South America's most controversial human remains is changing what we know about how ancient humans behaved and ultimately came to inhabit the region, potentially rewriting historical timelines as we know them.

Published today in Science, the study genetically analyzed DNA recovered from 15 ancient genomes discovered across the Americas, from Alaska to Patagonia. The results from two particularly contentious mummies can now dismiss a theory that Paleoamericans – a group of genetically different humans – existed in North America before Native Americans.

When Danish explorer Peter W. Lund discovered the Lagoa Santa remains in the 19th century, his researchers came up with the “Paleoamerican hypothesis” to suggest that the group of skeletons were not Native Americans due to their different cranial morphology. A century later, the remains of a 40-year-old man who died 10,600 years ago were found in Spirit Cave in the US Great Basin Desert and for nearly two decades, the “Spirit Cave Mummy” was at the heart of a legal battle. Nevada’s Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe claimed cultural affiliation with the remains and requested they be repatriated under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The federal government refuted their claim, contending the remains were genetically different than Native Americans.

That’s where Copenhagen-based researcher Eske Willeslev came in. As part of an international study, Willeslev was already sequencing other contentious remains (like the Lovelock skeletons, an Inca mummy, Chilean Patagonia's oldest human remains, as well as the 9,000-year-old milk tooth from a young Alaskan girl) when the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe granted him permission to analyze the Spirit Cave Mummy.


DNA of 10,000-Year-Old Spirit Cave Mummy Reveals Secrets of Native American History

A wide-ranging study in which researchers genetically analyzed the DNA of famous and controversial human remains from across North and South America has revealed fascinating new details about the ancient history of the vast region, as well as settling a long-running legal battle over a 10,600-year-old skeleton that is the world's oldest natural mummy.

In the study, published in the journal Science, an international team of researchers sequenced 15 prehistoric genomes&mdashessentially, the complete set of genes present in an organism&mdashextracted from remains found in locations as far apart as Alaska and Patagonia. These included, the Lovelock skeletons, the Lagoa Santa remains, an Inca mummy and the oldest remains in Chilean Patagonia, as well as the 10,600-year-old skeleton&mdashknown as the "Spirit Cave mummy."

"Throughout the last three decades many methodological advancements have been made which have facilitated the retrieval of ancient DNA from human remains," José Victor Moreno Mayar, first author of the study from the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen, told Newsweek. "Today we are able to get DNA from remains that have been deposited, for thousands of years, in settings that make DNA preservation unlikely."

These techniques enabled the researchers to track the movements of the earliest humans in the Americas, revealing both how they spread across the region at "astonishing" speed during the Ice Age, and how they interacted with each other in the following millennia.

"Today, we know some things about the peopling of the Americas from different disciplines like archaeology, anthropology, linguistics and genetics," Mayar said. "However, those things that we know are only enough to build a very simplistic model for how things happened.

"Such model states that the first Native Americans travelled from Asia into Alaska at some point after 25,000 years ago and once they moved into mid-latitude America, they followed a north to south route with some populations staying behind at different locations at different times after that, it seems that established populations did not interact much with one another," he said.

However, there are indications that suggest the story is far more complex, with long periods of population isolation in some places, and constant population interaction in some others.

"Genetics is a good way to characterize these processes," Mayar said. "However, the genomes of present-day Native Americans are only a subset of those present during initial settlement. Thus, we decided to look at the genomes of individuals that lived shortly after Native Americans were initially settling the Americas."

Significantly, the results enabled the team to dismiss a long-standing hypothesis that a group of genetically distinct humans, called Paleoamericans, existed in North America before Native Americans.

"Spirit Cave and Lagoa Santa were very controversial because they were identified as so-called 'Paleoamericans' based on craniometry&mdashit was determined that the shape of their skulls was different to current day Native Americans," Eske Willeslev, leader of the study who holds positions both at St John's College, University of Cambridge, and the University of Copenhagen, said in a statement.

"Our study proves that Spirit Cave and Lagoa Santa were actually genetically closer to contemporary Native Americans than to any other ancient or contemporary group sequenced to date."

The 10,400-year-old Lagoa Santa remains&mdashlocated in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais&mdashwere discovered by Danish explorer Peter W. Lund in the 19th century. The findings led him to develop the "Paleoamerican hypothesis", which suggested that the famous collection of skeletons could not be Native Americans, due to the particular shape of their skulls&mdashsomething the latest study refutes.

"Looking at the bumps and shapes of a head does not help you understand the true genetic ancestry of a population&mdashwe have proved that you can have people who look very different but are closely related," Willeslev said.

The latest study also marks an important chapter in the history of the Spirit Cave mummy&mdasha prehistoric man who died in his forties and was preserved naturally. Discovered in 1940 in the Great Basin Desert, its significance was not properly understood for 50 years. The remains were initially thought to be between 1,500 and 2,000 years old, but during the 1990s, new textile and hair testing dated the bones to 10,600 years old.

In 1997, the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe&mdasha group of Native Americans based in Nevada near Spirit Cave&mdashrequested immediate repatriation of the remains under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, claiming they had cultural affiliation with the skeleton.

However, this request was refused because the ancestry of the remains was disputed. In response the tribe sued the federal government, with the lawsuit pitting tribal leaders against anthropologists who argued that the mummy should continue to be displayed in a museum due to its historical value. The case was deadlocked for 20 years until the tribe allowed Willeslev to sequence the genome of the mummy for the first time.

"It was agreed that if Spirit Cave was genetically a Native American, the mummy would be repatriated to the tribe," Willeslev said.

After determining that the Spirit Cave individual was an ancestor of modern Native Americans, the remains were returned to the tribe in 2016 and a private reburial ceremony took place earlier this year&mdashthe details of which have just been released.

"What became very clear to me was that this was a deeply emotional and deeply cultural event," Willeslev said. "The tribe have real feelings for Spirit Cave, which as a European it can be hard to understand but for us it would very much be like burying our mother, father, sister or brother. We can all imagine what it would be like if our father or mother was put in an exhibition and they had that same feeling for Spirit Cave."

Not only has the sequencing of the Spirit Cave genome brought the long-running legal dispute to an end, but it has also cast new light on how ancient human populations moved and settled across the Americas. These populations often split up, travelling in smaller isolated groups.

"A striking thing about the analysis of Spirit Cave and Lagoa Santa is their close genetic similarity which implies their ancestral population travelled through the continent at astonishing speed," David Meltzer, from the Department of Anthropology at the Southern Methodist University, Dallas, said in the statement.

"That's something we've suspected due to the archaeological findings, but it's fascinating to have it confirmed by the genetics. These findings imply that the first peoples were highly skilled at moving rapidly across an utterly unfamiliar and empty landscape. They had a whole continent to themselves and they were travelling great distances at breathtaking speed."

The latest research also uncovered surprising traces of Australasian ancestry in the Lagoa Santa remains, indicating that Native South Americans had ancient ties to these people. However, no Australasian genetic link was found in Native North Americans.

"We discovered the Australasian signal was absent in Native Americans prior to the Spirit Cave and Lagoa Santa population split which means groups carrying this genetic signal were either already present in South America when Native Americans reached the region, or Australasian groups arrived later," Mayar said.

"That this signal has not been previously documented in North America implies that an earlier group possessing it had disappeared or a later arriving group passed through North America without leaving any genetic trace."

For Peter de Barros Damgaard, also from the Centre for GeoGenetics, this presents an intriguing puzzle.

"If we assume that the migratory route that brought this Australasian ancestry to South America went through North America, either the carriers of the genetic signal came in as a structured population and went straight to South America where they later mixed with new incoming groups, or they entered later," he said. "At the moment we cannot resolve which of these might be correct."

According to the researchers, the latest findings may force us to rethink our ideas on how the Americas were first settled, suggesting that this process was far more complex than previously thought, as expected.

"We found that before moving south of the ice sheets that covered northern North America during the Ice Age, there were many Native American groups that we hadn't genetically documented before," Mayar said. "Then, once south of the ice, it seems that Native Americans radiated and explored the whole continent very quickly, likely in a matter of centuries."

"However, that was not the end of the story and it appears that starting from 8,000 years ago, there was a second population expansion out of Mesoamerica, which contributed to the ancestry of most present-day South Americans and also some peoples in the U.S. Great Basin," he said.

Mayar noted that we are only scratching the surface in terms of characterizing different population movements at different times. "Our results make it clear that future studies will show further, finer details of this story," he said.


DNA of world's oldest natural mummy unlocks secrets of Ice Age tribes in the Americas

A legal battle over a 10,600 year old ancient skeleton - called the 'Spirit Cave Mummy' - has ended after advanced DNA sequencing found it was related to a Native American tribe.

The revelation has been published in Science today (Thursday, November 8 at 14:00 US Eastern Time) as part of a wide ranging international study that genetically analysed the DNA of a series of famous and controversial ancient remains across North and South America including Spirit Cave, the Lovelock skeletons, the Lagoa Santa remains, an Inca mummy, and the oldest remains in Chilean Patagonia. The study also looked at the second oldest human remains from Trail Creek Cave in Alaska - a 9,000 year old milk tooth from a young girl.

Scientists sequenced 15 ancient genomes spanning from Alaska to Patagonia and were able to track the movements of the first humans as they spread across the Americas at "astonishing" speed during the Ice Age, and also how they interacted with each other in the following millennia.

The team of academics not only discovered that the Spirit Cave remains - the world's oldest natural mummy - was a Native American but they were able to dismiss a longstanding theory that a group called Paleoamericans existed in North America before Native Americans.

The ground-breaking research also discovered clues of a puzzling Australasian genetic signal in the 10,400 year old Lagoa Santa remains from Brazil revealing a previously unknown group of early South Americans - but the Australasian link left no genetic trace in North America. It was described by one of the scientists as 'extraordinary evidence of an extraordinary chapter in human history'.

Professor Eske Willeslev, who holds positions both at St John's College, University of Cambridge, and the University of Copenhagen, and led the study, said: "Spirit Cave and Lagoa Santa were very controversial because they were identified as so-called 'Paleoamericans' based on craniometry - it was determined that the shape of their skulls was different to current day Native Americans. Our study proves that Spirit Cave and Lagoa Santa were actually genetically closer to contemporary Native Americans than to any other ancient or contemporary group sequenced to date."

The Lagoa Santa remains were retrieved by Danish explorer Peter W. Lund in the 19th century and his work led to this 'Paleoamerican hypothesis' based on cranial morphology that theorised the famous group of skeletons could not be Native Americans. But this new study disproves that theory and the findings were launched under embargo by Professor Willeslev with representatives from the Brazilian National Museum in Rio on Tuesday, November 6 2018.

He added: "Looking at the bumps and shapes of a head does not help you understand the true genetic ancestry of a population - we have proved that you can have people who look very different but are closely related."

The scientific and cultural significance of the Spirit Cave remains, which were found in 1940 in a small rocky alcove in the Great Basin Desert, was not properly understood for 50 years. The preserved remains of the man in his forties were initially believed to be between 1,500 and 2000 years old, but during the 1990s new textile and hair testing dated the skeleton at 10,600 years old.

The Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, a group of Native Americans based in Nevada near Spirit Cave, claimed cultural affiliation with the skeleton and requested immediate repatriation of the remains under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

The request was refused because the ancestry was disputed, the tribe sued the federal government and the lawsuit pitted tribal leaders against anthropologists, who argued the remains provided invaluable insights into North America's earliest inhabitants and should continue to be displayed in a museum.

The deadlock continued for 20 years until the tribe agreed that Professor Willeslev could carry out genome sequencing on DNA extracted from the Spirit Cave for the first time.

Professor Willeslev said: "I assured the tribe that my group would not do the DNA testing unless they gave permission and it was agreed that if Spirit Cave was genetically a Native American the mummy would be repatriated to the tribe."

The team painstakingly extracted DNA from the petrus bone from the inside of the skull proving that the skeleton was an ancestor of present day Native Americans. Spirit Cave was returned to the tribe in 2016 and there was a private reburial ceremony earlier this year that Professor Willeslev attended and details have just been released.

The geneticist explained: "What became very clear to me was that this was a deeply emotional and deeply cultural event. The tribe have real feelings for Spirit Cave, which as a European it can be hard to understand but for us it would very much be like burying our mother, father, sister or brother.

"We can all imagine what it would be like if our father or mother was put in an exhibition and they had that same feeling for Spirit Cave. It has been a privilege to work with them."

The tribe were kept informed throughout the two year project and two members visited the lab in Copenhagen to meet the scientists and they were present when all of the DNA sampling was taken.

A statement from the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, said: "The Tribe has had a lot of experience with members of the scientific community, mostly negative. However, there are a handful of scientists that seemed to understand the Tribe's perspective and Eske Willerslev was one of them.

"He took the time to acquaint himself with the Tribe, kept us well-informed of the process, and was available to answer our questions. His new study confirms what we have always known from our oral tradition and other evidence - that the man taken from his final resting place in Spirit Cave is our Native American ancestor."

The genome of the Spirit Cave skeleton has wider significance because it not only settled the legal and cultural dispute between the tribe and the Government, it also helped reveal how ancient humans moved and settled across the Americas. The scientists were able to track the movement of populations from Alaska to as far south as Patagonia. They often separated from each other and took their chances travelling in small pockets of isolated groups.

Dr David Meltzer, from the Department of Anthropology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, said: "A striking thing about the analysis of Spirit Cave and Lagoa Santa is their close genetic similarity which implies their ancestral population travelled through the continent at astonishing speed. That's something we've suspected due to the archaeological findings, but it's fascinating to have it confirmed by the genetics. These findings imply that the first peoples were highly skilled at moving rapidly across an utterly unfamiliar and empty landscape. They had a whole continent to themselves and they were travelling great distances at breath-taking speed."

The study also revealed surprising traces of Australasian ancestry in ancient South American Native Americans but no Australasian genetic link was found in North American Native Americans.

Dr Victor Moreno-Mayar, from the Centre for GeoGenetics, University of Copenhagen and first author of the study, said: "We discovered the Australasian signal was absent in Native Americans prior to the Spirit Cave and Lagoa Santa population split which means groups carrying this genetic signal were either already present in South America when Native Americans reached the region, or Australasian groups arrived later. That this signal has not been previously documented in North America implies that an earlier group possessing it had disappeared or a later arriving group passed through North America without leaving any genetic trace."

Dr Peter de Barros Damgaard, from the Centre for GeoGenetics, University of Copenhagen, explained why scientists remain puzzled but optimistic about the Australasian ancestry signal in South America. He explained: "If we assume that the migratory route that brought this Australasian ancestry to South America went through North America, either the carriers of the genetic signal came in as a structured population and went straight to South America where they later mixed with new incoming groups, or they entered later. At the moment we cannot resolve which of these might be correct, leaving us facing extraordinary evidence of an extraordinary chapter in human history! But we will solve this puzzle."

The population history during the millennia that followed initial settlement was far more complex than previously thought. The peopling of the Americas had been simplified as a series of north to south population splits with little to no interaction between groups after their establishment.

The new genomic analysis presented in the study has shown that around 8,000 years ago, Native Americans were on the move again, but this time from Mesoamerica into both North and South America.

Researchers found traces of this movement in the genomes of all present-day indigenous populations in South America for which genomic data is available to date.

Dr Moreno-Mayar added: "The older genomes in our study not only taught us about the first inhabitants in South America, but also served as a baseline for identifying a second stream of genetic ancestry, which arrived from Mesoamerica in recent millennia and that is not evident from the archaeological record. These Mesoamerican peoples mixed with the descendants of the earliest South Americans and gave rise to most contemporary groups in the region."

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.


DNA of world’s oldest natural mummy unlocks secrets of Ice Age tribes in the Americas

The revelation has been published in Sciencetoday (Thursday, November 8 at 14:00 US Eastern Time) as part of a wide ranging international study that genetically analysed the DNA of a series of famous and controversial ancient remains across North and South America including Spirit Cave, the Lovelock skeletons, the Lagoa Santa remains, an Inca mummy, and the oldest remains in Chilean Patagonia. The study also looked at the second oldest human remains from Trail Creek Cave in Alaska – a 9,000 year old milk tooth from a young girl.

Scientists sequenced 15 ancient genomes spanning from Alaska to Patagonia and were able to track the movements of the first humans as they spread across the Americas at “astonishing” speed during the Ice Age, and also how they interacted with each other in the following millennia.

The team of academics not only discovered that the Spirit Cave remains – the world’s oldest natural mummy – was a Native American but they were able to dismiss a longstanding theory that a group called Paleoamericans existed in North America before Native Americans.

The ground-breaking research also discovered clues of a puzzling Australasian genetic signal in the 10,400 year old Lagoa Santa remains from Brazil revealing a previously unknown group of early South Americans – but the Australasian link left no genetic trace in North America. It was described by one of the scientists as ‘extraordinary evidence of an extraordinary chapter in human history’.

Professor Eske Willeslev, who holds positions both at St John’s College, University of Cambridge, and the University of Copenhagen, and led the study, said: “Spirit Cave and Lagoa Santa were very controversial because they were identified as so-called ‘Paleoamericans’ based on craniometry – it was determined that the shape of their skulls was different to current day Native Americans. Our study proves that Spirit Cave and Lagoa Santa were actually genetically closer to contemporary Native Americans than to any other ancient or contemporary group sequenced to date.”

The Lagoa Santa remains were retrieved by Danish explorer Peter W. Lund in the 19th century and his work led to this ‘Paleoamerican hypothesis’ based on cranial morphology that theorised the famous group of skeletons could not be Native Americans. But this new study disproves that theory and the findings were launched under embargo by Professor Willeslev with representatives from the Brazilian National Museum in Rio on Tuesday, November 6 2018.

He added: “Looking at the bumps and shapes of a head does not help you understand the true genetic ancestry of a population – we have proved that you can have people who look very different but are closely related.”

The scientific and cultural significance of the Spirit Cave remains, which were found in 1940 in a small rocky alcove in the Great Basin Desert, was not properly understood for 50 years. The preserved remains of the man in his forties were initially believed to be between 1,500 and 2000 years old, but during the 1990s new textile and hair testing dated the skeleton at 10,600 years old.

The Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, a group of Native Americans based in Nevada near Spirit Cave, claimed cultural affiliation with the skeleton and requested immediate repatriation of the remains under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

The request was refused because the ancestry was disputed, the tribe sued the federal government and the lawsuit pitted tribal leaders against anthropologists, who argued the remains provided invaluable insights into North America’s earliest inhabitants and should continue to be displayed in a museum.

The deadlock continued for 20 years until the tribe agreed that Professor Willeslev could carry out genome sequencing on DNA extracted from the Spirit Cave for the first time.

Professor Willeslev said: “I assured the tribe that my group would not do the DNA testing unless they gave permission and it was agreed that if Spirit Cave was genetically a Native American the mummy would be repatriated to the tribe.”

The team painstakingly extracted DNA from the petrus bone from the inside of the skull proving that the skeleton was an ancestor of present day Native Americans. Spirit Cave was returned to the tribe in 2016 and there was a private reburial ceremony earlier this year that Professor Willeslev attended and details have just been released.

The geneticist explained: “What became very clear to me was that this was a deeply emotional and deeply cultural event. The tribe have real feelings for Spirit Cave, which as a European it can be hard to understand but for us it would very much be like burying our mother, father, sister or brother.

“We can all imagine what it would be like if our father or mother was put in an exhibition and they had that same feeling for Spirit Cave. It has been a privilege to work with them.”

The tribe were kept informed throughout the two year project and two members visited the lab in Copenhagen to meet the scientists and they were present when all of the DNA sampling was taken.

A statement from the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, said: “The Tribe has had a lot of experience with members of the scientific community, mostly negative. However, there are a handful of scientists that seemed to understand the Tribe’s perspective and Eske Willerslev was one of them.

“He took the time to acquaint himself with the Tribe, kept us well-informed of the process, and was available to answer our questions. His new study confirms what we have always known from our oral tradition and other evidence – that the man taken from his final resting place in Spirit Cave is our Native American ancestor.”

The genome of the Spirit Cave skeleton has wider significance because it not only settled the legal and cultural dispute between the tribe and the Government, it also helped reveal how ancient humans moved and settled across the Americas. The scientists were able to track the movement of populations from Alaska to as far south as Patagonia. They often separated from each other and took their chances travelling in small pockets of isolated groups.

Dr David Meltzer, from the Department of Anthropology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, said: “A striking thing about the analysis of Spirit Cave and Lagoa Santa is their close genetic similarity which implies their ancestral population travelled through the continent at astonishing speed. That’s something we’ve suspected due to the archaeological findings, but it’s fascinating to have it confirmed by the genetics. These findings imply that the first peoples were highly skilled at moving rapidly across an utterly unfamiliar and empty landscape. They had a whole continent to themselves and they were travelling great distances at breath-taking speed.”

The study also revealed surprising traces of Australasian ancestry in ancient South American Native Americans but no Australasian genetic link was found in North American Native Americans.

Dr Victor Moreno-Mayar, from the Centre for GeoGenetics, University of Copenhagen and first author of the study, said: “We discovered the Australasian signal was absent in Native Americans prior to the Spirit Cave and Lagoa Santa population split which means groups carrying this genetic signal were either already present in South America when Native Americans reached the region, or Australasian groups arrived later. That this signal has not been previously documented in North America implies that an earlier group possessing it had disappeared or a later arriving group passed through North America without leaving any genetic trace.”

Dr Peter de Barros Damgaard, from the Centre for GeoGenetics, University of Copenhagen, explained why scientists remain puzzled but optimistic about the Australasian ancestry signal in South America. He explained: “If we assume that the migratory route that brought this Australasian ancestry to South America went through North America, either the carriers of the genetic signal came in as a structured population and went straight to South America where they later mixed with new incoming groups, or they entered later. At the moment we cannot resolve which of these might be correct, leaving us facing extraordinary evidence of an extraordinary chapter in human history! But we will solve this puzzle.”

The population history during the millennia that followed initial settlement was far more complex than previously thought. The peopling of the Americas had been simplified as a series of north to south population splits with little to no interaction between groups after their establishment.

The new genomic analysis presented in the study has shown that around 8,000 years ago, Native Americans were on the move again, but this time from Mesoamerica into both North and South America.

Researchers found traces of this movement in the genomes of all present-day indigenous populations in South America for which genomic data is available to date.

Dr Moreno-Mayar added: “The older genomes in our study not only taught us about the first inhabitants in South America, but also served as a baseline for identifying a second stream of genetic ancestry, which arrived from Mesoamerica in recent millennia and that is not evident from the archaeological record. These Mesoamerican peoples mixed with the descendants of the earliest South Americans and gave rise to most contemporary groups in the region.”


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Ten years of ancient genome analysis has taught scientists 'what it means to be human'

The late Jim Boyd of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville talking at the press conference in 2015 announcing the results of the DNA analysis of Kennewick Man, the Ancient One. Credit: Linus Mørk/Magus Film

A ball of 4,000-year-old hair frozen in time tangled around a whalebone comb led to the first ever reconstruction of an ancient human genome just over a decade ago.

The hair, which was preserved in arctic permafrost in Greenland, was collected in the 1980s and stored at a museum in Denmark. It wasn't until 2010 that evolutionary biologist Professor Eske Willerslev was able to use pioneering shotgun DNA sequencing to reconstruct the genetic history of the hair.

He found it came from a man from the earliest known people to settle in Greenland known as the Saqqaq culture. It was the first time scientists had recovered an entire ancient human genome.

Now a review of the first decade of ancient genomics of the Americas published in Nature today written by Professor Willerslev a Fellow of St John's College, University of Cambridge, and director of The Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre, University of Copenhagen, with one of his longstanding collaborators Professor David Meltzer, an archaeologist based at Southern Methodist University, Texas, shows how the world's first analysis of an ancient genome sparked an incredible 'decade of discovery'.

Professor Willerslev said: "The last ten years has been full of surprises in the understanding of the peopling of the Americas—I often feel like a child at Christmas waiting to see what exciting DNA present I am about to unwrap! What has really blown my mind is how resilient and capable the early humans we have sequenced DNA from were—they occupied extremely different environments and often populated them in a short space of time.

"We were taught in school that people would stay put until the population grew to a level where the resources were exhausted. But we found people were spreading around the world just to explore, to discover, to have adventures.

"The last 10 years have shown us a lot about our history and what it means to be human. We won't ever see that depth of human experience on this planet again—people entered new areas with absolutely no idea of what was in front of them. It tells us a lot about human adaptability and how humans behave."

For decades, scientists relied on archaeological findings to reconstruct the past and theories weren't always accurate. It was previously thought, that there were early non-Native American people in the Americas but the ancient DNA analysis so far has shown that all of the ancient remains found are more closely related to contemporary Native Americans than to any other population anywhere else in the world.

A ball of 4,000-year-old hair frozen in time tangled around a whalebone comb led to the first ever reconstruction of an ancient human genome just over a decade ago. The hair, which was preserved in arctic permafrost in Greenland, was collected in the 1980s and stored at a museum in Denmark. It wasn't until 2010 that evolutionary biologist Professor Eske Willerslev was able to use pioneering shotgun DNA sequencing to reconstruct the genetic history of the hair. He found it came from a man from the earliest known people to settle in Greenland known as the Saqqaq culture. It was the first time scientists had recovered an entire ancient human genome. Now a review of the first decade of ancient genomics of the Americas published in Nature today (June 16, 2021) written by Professor Willerslev a Fellow of St John's College, University of Cambridge, and director of The Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre, University of Copenhagen, with one of his longstanding collaborators Professor David Meltzer, an archaeologist based at Southern Methodist University, Texas, shows how the world's first analysis of an ancient genome sparked an incredible 'decade of discovery.' Credit: St John's College, University of Cambridge

Professor Meltzer, who worked on the review with Professor Willerslev while the former was at St John's College as a Beaufort Visiting Scholar added: "Genomic evidence has shown connections that we didn't know existed between different cultures and populations and the absence of connections that we thought did exist. Human population history been far more complex than previously thought.

"A lot of what has been discovered about the peopling of the Americas could not have been predicted. We have seen how rapidly people were moving around the world when they have a continent to themselves, there was nothing to hold them back. There was a selective advantage to seeing what was over the next hill."

In 2013, scientists mapped the genome of a four-year-old boy who died in south-central Siberia 24,000 years ago. The burial of an Upper Palaeolithic Siberian child was discovered in the 1920s by Russian archaeologists near the village of Mal'ta, along the Belaya river. Sequencing of the Mal'ta genome was key as it showed the existence of a previously unsampled population that contributed to the ancestry of Siberian and Native American populations.

Two years later, Professor Willerslev and his team published the first ancient Native American genome, sequenced from the remains of a baby boy ceremonially buried more than 12,000 years ago in Anzick, Montana.

In 2015, their ancient genomic analysis was able to solve the mystery of Kennewick Man, one of the oldest and most complete skeletons ever found in the Americas, and one of the most controversial.

The 9,000-year-old remains had been surrounded by a storm of controversy when legal jurisdiction over the skeleton became the focus of a decade of lawsuits between five Native American tribes, who claimed ownership of the man they called Ancient One, and the United States Army Corps of Engineers.

Professor Willerslev, who has rightly learnt to be mindful of cultural sensitivities when searching for ancient DNA, has spent much of the past decade talking to tribal community members to explain his work in detail and seek their support.

This meant he was able to agree with members of the Colville Tribe, based in Washington State where the remains were found, that they would donate some of their DNA to allow Professor Willerslev and his team to establish if there was a genetic link between them and Kennewick Man.

Professor Eske Willerslev with Donna and Joey, two members of the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone tribe, discussing the Spirit Cave individual. Credit: Linus Mørk/Magus Film.

Jackie Cook, a descendant of the Colville Tribe and the repatriation specialist for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, said: "We had spent nearly 20 years trying to have the Ancient One repatriated to us. There has been a long history of distrust between scientists and our Native American tribes but when Eske presented to us about his DNA work on the Anzick child, the hair on my arms stood up.

"We knew we shouldn't have to agree to DNA testing, and there were concerns that we would have to do it every time to prove cultural affiliation, but our Council members discussed it with the elders and it was agreed that any tribal member who wanted to provide DNA for the study could."

The Kennewick Man genome, like the Anzick baby, revealed the man was a direct ancestor of living Native Americans. The Ancient One was duly returned to the tribes and reburied.

Cook added: "We took a risk but it worked out. It was remarkable to work with Eske and we felt honoured, relieved and humbled to be able to resolve such an important case. We had oral stories that have passed down through the generations for thousands of years that we call coyote stories—teaching stories. These stories were from our ancestors about living alongside woolly mammoths and witnessing a series of floods and volcanoes erupting. As a tribe, we have always embraced science but not all history is discovered through science."

Work led by Professor Willerslev was also able to identify the origins of the world's oldest natural mummy called Spirit Cave. Scientists discovered the ancient human skeleton back in 1940 but it wasn't until 2018 that a striking discovery was made that unlocked the secrets of the Ice Age tribe in the Americas.

The revelation came as part of a study that genetically analysed the DNA of a series of famous and controversial ancient remains across North and South America including Spirit Cave, the Lovelock skeletons, the Lagoa Santa remains, an Inca mummy, and the oldest remains in Chilean Patagonia.

Scientists sequenced 15 ancient genomes spanning from Alaska to Patagonia and were able to track the movements of the first humans as they spread across the Americas at 'astonishing' speed during the Ice Age and also how they interacted with each other in the following millennia.

The team of academics not only discovered that the Spirit Cave remains was a Native American but they were able to dismiss a longstanding theory that a group called Paleoamericans existed in North America before Native Americans. Spirit Cave was returned to The Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, a group of Native Americans based in Nevada, for burial.

Professor Willerslev added: "Over the past decade human history has been fundamentally changed thanks to ancient genomic analysis—and the incredible findings have only just begun."


Research: DNA of world’s oldest natural mummy unlocks secrets of Ice Age tribes in the Americas —

A legal battle over a 10,600 year old ancient skeleton — called the ‘Spirit Cave Mummy’ — has ended after advanced DNA sequencing found it was related to a Native American tribe.

The revelation has been published in Science today (Thursday, November 8 at 14:00 US Eastern Time) as part of a wide ranging international study that genetically analysed the DNA of a series of famous and controversial ancient remains across North and South America including Spirit Cave, the Lovelock skeletons, the Lagoa Santa remains, an Inca mummy, and the oldest remains in Chilean Patagonia. The study also looked at the second oldest human remains from Trail Creek Cave in Alaska — a 9,000 year old milk tooth from a young girl.

Scientists sequenced 15 ancient genomes spanning from Alaska to Patagonia and were able to track the movements of the first humans as they spread across the Americas at “astonishing” speed during the Ice Age, and also how they interacted with each other in the following millennia.

The team of academics not only discovered that the Spirit Cave remains — the world’s oldest natural mummy — was a Native American but they were able to dismiss a longstanding theory that a group called Paleoamericans existed in North America before Native Americans.

The ground-breaking research also discovered clues of a puzzling Australasian genetic signal in the 10,400 year old Lagoa Santa remains from Brazil revealing a previously unknown group of early South Americans — but the Australasian link left no genetic trace in North America. It was described by one of the scientists as ‘extraordinary evidence of an extraordinary chapter in human history’.

Professor Eske Willeslev, who holds positions both at St John’s College, University of Cambridge, and the University of Copenhagen, and led the study, said: “Spirit Cave and Lagoa Santa were very controversial because they were identified as so-called ‘Paleoamericans’ based on craniometry — it was determined that the shape of their skulls was different to current day Native Americans. Our study proves that Spirit Cave and Lagoa Santa were actually genetically closer to contemporary Native Americans than to any other ancient or contemporary group sequenced to date.”

The Lagoa Santa remains were retrieved by Danish explorer Peter W. Lund in the 19th century and his work led to this ‘Paleoamerican hypothesis’ based on cranial morphology that theorised the famous group of skeletons could not be Native Americans. But this new study disproves that theory and the findings were published by Professor Willeslev with representatives from the Brazilian National Museum in Rio on Tuesday, November 6 2018.

He added: “Looking at the bumps and shapes of a head does not help you understand the true genetic ancestry of a population — we have proved that you can have people who look very different but are closely related.”

The scientific and cultural significance of the Spirit Cave remains, which were found in 1940 in a small rocky alcove in the Great Basin Desert, was not properly understood for 50 years. The preserved remains of the man in his forties were initially believed to be between 1,500 and 2000 years old, but during the 1990s new textile and hair testing dated the skeleton at 10,600 years old.

The Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, a group of Native Americans based in Nevada near Spirit Cave, claimed cultural affiliation with the skeleton and requested immediate repatriation of the remains under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

The request was refused because the ancestry was disputed, the tribe sued the federal government and the lawsuit pitted tribal leaders against anthropologists, who argued the remains provided invaluable insights into North America’s earliest inhabitants and should continue to be displayed in a museum.

The deadlock continued for 20 years until the tribe agreed that Professor Willeslev could carry out genome sequencing on DNA extracted from the Spirit Cave for the first time.

Professor Willeslev said: “I assured the tribe that my group would not do the DNA testing unless they gave permission and it was agreed that if Spirit Cave was genetically a Native American the mummy would be repatriated to the tribe.”

The team painstakingly extracted DNA from the petrus bone from the inside of the skull proving that the skeleton was an ancestor of present day Native Americans. Spirit Cave was returned to the tribe in 2016 and there was a private reburial ceremony earlier this year that Professor Willeslev attended and details have just been released.

The geneticist explained: “What became very clear to me was that this was a deeply emotional and deeply cultural event. The tribe have real feelings for Spirit Cave, which as a European it can be hard to understand but for us it would very much be like burying our mother, father, sister or brother.

“We can all imagine what it would be like if our father or mother was put in an exhibition and they had that same feeling for Spirit Cave. It has been a privilege to work with them.”

The tribe were kept informed throughout the two year project and two members visited the lab in Copenhagen to meet the scientists and they were present when all of the DNA sampling was taken.

A statement from the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, said: “The Tribe has had a lot of experience with members of the scientific community, mostly negative. However, there are a handful of scientists that seemed to understand the Tribe’s perspective and Eske Willerslev was one of them.

“He took the time to acquaint himself with the Tribe, kept us well-informed of the process, and was available to answer our questions. His new study confirms what we have always known from our oral tradition and other evidence — that the man taken from his final resting place in Spirit Cave is our Native American ancestor.”

The genome of the Spirit Cave skeleton has wider significance because it not only settled the legal and cultural dispute between the tribe and the Government, it also helped reveal how ancient humans moved and settled across the Americas. The scientists were able to track the movement of populations from Alaska to as far south as Patagonia. They often separated from each other and took their chances travelling in small pockets of isolated groups.

Dr David Meltzer, from the Department of Anthropology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, said: “A striking thing about the analysis of Spirit Cave and Lagoa Santa is their close genetic similarity which implies their ancestral population travelled through the continent at astonishing speed. That’s something we’ve suspected due to the archaeological findings, but it’s fascinating to have it confirmed by the genetics. These findings imply that the first peoples were highly skilled at moving rapidly across an utterly unfamiliar and empty landscape. They had a whole continent to themselves and they were travelling great distances at breath-taking speed.”

The study also revealed surprising traces of Australasian ancestry in ancient South American Native Americans but no Australasian genetic link was found in North American Native Americans.

Dr Victor Moreno-Mayar, from the Centre for GeoGenetics, University of Copenhagen and first author of the study, said: “We discovered the Australasian signal was absent in Native Americans prior to the Spirit Cave and Lagoa Santa population split which means groups carrying this genetic signal were either already present in South America when Native Americans reached the region, or Australasian groups arrived later. That this signal has not been previously documented in North America implies that an earlier group possessing it had disappeared or a later arriving group passed through North America without leaving any genetic trace.”

Dr Peter de Barros Damgaard, from the Centre for GeoGenetics, University of Copenhagen, explained why scientists remain puzzled but optimistic about the Australasian ancestry signal in South America. He explained: “If we assume that the migratory route that brought this Australasian ancestry to South America went through North America, either the carriers of the genetic signal came in as a structured population and went straight to South America where they later mixed with new incoming groups, or they entered later. At the moment we cannot resolve which of these might be correct, leaving us facing extraordinary evidence of an extraordinary chapter in human history! But we will solve this puzzle.”

The population history during the millennia that followed initial settlement was far more complex than previously thought. The peopling of the Americas had been simplified as a series of north to south population splits with little to no interaction between groups after their establishment.

The new genomic analysis presented in the study has shown that around 8,000 years ago, Native Americans were on the move again, but this time from Mesoamerica into both North and South America.

Researchers found traces of this movement in the genomes of all present-day indigenous populations in South America for which genomic data is available to date.

Dr Moreno-Mayar added: “The older genomes in our study not only taught us about the first inhabitants in South America, but also served as a baseline for identifying a second stream of genetic ancestry, which arrived from Mesoamerica in recent millennia and that is not evident from the archaeological record. These Mesoamerican peoples mixed with the descendants of the earliest South Americans and gave rise to most contemporary groups in the region.”


Contents

The Wheelers, working for the Nevada State Parks Commission, were surveying possible archaeological sites to prevent their loss due to guano mining. Upon entering Spirit Cave they discovered the remains of two people wrapped in tule matting. One set of remains, buried deeper than the other, had been partially mummified (the head and right shoulder). This partially mummified individual (actual Spirit Cave mummy) was found to be wearing moccasins and wrapped in a rabbit-skin blanket when laid to rest. [8] The Wheelers, with the assistance of local residents, recovered a total of sixty-seven artifacts from the cave.

These artifacts were examined at the Nevada State Museum where they were initially estimated to be between 1,500 and 2,000 years old. They were deposited at the Nevada State Museum’s storage facility in Carson City where they remained for the next fifty-four years.

Spirit Cave Edit

Spirit Cave is at an elevation of 4,154 feet in the foothills of the Stillwater Mountains [9] the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge is now established in this area. The location is to the northeast of Fallon, Nevada. [10] Biological similarities between remains found in Spirit Cave have shown undeniable association to remains scattered across a wide geographic location such as the Wizard Beach man and Crypt Cave dog burial. [7]

In 1996 University of California, Riverside anthropologist R. Ervi Taylor examined seventeen of the Spirit Cave artifacts using mass spectrometry. The results indicated that the mummy was approximately 9,400 years old (uncalibrated RCYBP)

11.5 Kya calibrated) — older than any previously known North American mummy. [7] Researchers estimate the death of this person to have occurred about 7420 B.C. [1] The mummy was originally thought to be between 1,500 and 2,000 years old until mass spectrometry carbon dates were carried out. [7]

The findings were published in the Nevada Historical Quarterly in 1997 and drew immediate national attention. [11] [12] [13] [14]

In 2000, further study was unable to establish a definitive affiliation of the remains. [16]

In September, 2006, the United States District Court for the District of Nevada ruled on a lawsuit by the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe and said that the Bureau of Land Management made an error in dismissing evidence without a full explanation. The court order remanded the matter back to the BLM for reconsideration of the evidence. [17]

In October 2015, Eske Willerslev collected bone and tooth samples from the remains with the permission of the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe. DNA analysis indicated that the remains were similar to North and South American indigenous groups. On November 22, 2016, the remains were repatriated to the tribe. [6] Willerslev attended the 2018 burial of the remains by the tribe. [8]

In November 2018, researchers reported that the DNA sequencing of the remains were used in research about Paleoamericans (Y-haplogroup Q1b1a1a1-M848, mt-haplogroup D1). [18]

Wizards Beach Man's remains were also in the collection of the Nevada State Museum, and were radiocarbon dated at the same time. This turned out to be another early Holocene skeleton dating to almost exactly the same era.

Wizards Beach Man was found in 1978 at Wizards Beach [19] on Pyramid Lake, about 100 miles (160 km) to the northwest from Spirit Cave. [20] Radiocarbon dating has established that he lived more than 9,200 years ago. [21] [22]


World's oldest human DNA found in 800,000-year-old tooth of a cannibal

A protein analysis suggests the supposed cannibal species Homo antecessor was distantly related to humans and Neanderthals.

In 1994, archaeologists digging in the Atapuerca Mountains in northern Spain discovered the fossilized remains of an archaic group of humans unlike any other ever seen. The bones were cut and fractured, and appeared to have been cannibalized. The largest skeletal fragments — which came from at least six individuals and dated to at least 800,000 years ago — shared some similarities with modern humans (Homo sapiens), plus other now-extinct human relatives like Neanderthals and Denisovans, but were just different enough to defy classification as any known species.

Researchers ultimately named the previously unknown hominins Homo antecessor, borrowing the Latin word for "predecessor." Because the bones were among the oldest Homo fossils ever found in Europe, some researchers speculated that H. antecessor may have been the elusive common ancestor of Neanderthals, Denisovans and modern humans. Now, a new study of H. antecessor's DNA the single oldest sample of human genetic material ever analyzed — argues that that's probably not the case.

In the study, published April 1 in the journal Nature, researchers sequenced the ancient proteins in the enamel of an 800,000-year-old H. antecessor tooth, using the proteins to decipher the portion of genetic code that created them. After comparing that code with genetic data from more recent human tooth samples, the team concluded that H. antecessor's DNA was too different to fit on the same branch of the evolutionary tree as humans, Neanderthals and Denisovans.

Rather, the team wrote, H. antecessor was probably a "sister species" of the shared ancestor that led to the evolution of modern humans and our extinct hominin cousins.

"I am happy that the protein study provides evidence that the Homo antecessor species may be closely related to the last common ancestor of Homo sapiens, Neanderthals, and Denisovans," study co-author José María Bermúdez de Castro, scientific co-director of the excavations in Atapuerca, said in a statement. "The features shared by Homo antecessor with these hominins clearly appeared much earlier than previously thought."

To reach these results, the researchers used a method called paleoproteomics — literally, the study of ancient proteins. Using mass spectrometry, which displays the masses of all the molecules in a sample, scientists can identify the specific proteins in a given fossil. Our cells build proteins according to instructions contained in our DNA, with three nucleotides, or letters, in a string of DNA coding for a specific amino acid. Strings of amino acids form a protein. So, the amino acid chains that form each person's unique protein sequence reveal the patterns of nucleotides that form that person's genetic code, lead study author Frido Welker, a molecular anthropologist at the University of Copenhagen, told Haaretz.com.

Studying ancient proteins therefore opens a window into our genetic past in a way that DNA analysis cannot. DNA degrades relatively quickly, becoming unreadable within several hundred thousand years. To date, the oldest human DNA ever sequenced was about 430,000 years old (also discovered in Spain), according to a 2016 Nature study. Proteins, meanwhile, can survive in fossils for millions of years. Scientists have previously used similar protein sequencing methods to study the genetic code of a 1.77-million-year-old rhino found in Dmanisi, Georgia, and a 1.9-million-year-old extinct ape in China.

While protein analysis allows researchers to look much further into the past than other genetic-sequencing methods, the findings are still limited by the quality and number of specimens available to study. Because the present research is based only on a single tooth from a single H. antecessor individual, the results provide only a "best guess" as to where the species lands on the human evolutionary tree, the authors wrote. Different types of cells produce many different kinds of proteins, so this enamel proteome is far from a complete genetic profile. More fossil evidence is needed to flesh out these results.

Of course, the quality of those fossil samples matters, too. As part of this study, the researchers also examined a 1.77-million-year-old molar taken from a fossil Homo erectus (an ancient human ancestor that lived 2 million years ago) previously discovered in Georgia however, the protein sequence was too short and damaged to offer any new insights about the specimen's DNA. Our human family tree will have to remain, for now, a tangled messy bush.

With impressive cutaway illustrations that show how things function, and mindblowing photography of the world&rsquos most inspiring spectacles, How It Works represents the pinnacle of engaging, factual fun for a mainstream audience keen to keep up with the latest tech and the most impressive phenomena on the planet and beyond. Written and presented in a style that makes even the most complex subjects interesting and easy to understand, How It Works is enjoyed by readers of all ages.
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