The roughly 26,000-year-old remains of a baby from the ancient Clovis tribe has definitively taken sides. For many years now, it has been the widespread belief that Native Americans were descended from the original people to have settled on the continent, having most likely come across the Bering land bridge when that area was frozen over. However, there has been a smaller group that put forward the theory that the earliest settlers came from Ice Age Europe—specifically, the areas including France and Spain— via South America. This theory, based on the similarities between Clovis tools and tools of the European Solutrean culture, has just had all possible connections disproved with the genome mapping of the Clovis boy’s bones.
The child’s remains were found on a private ranch in Montana in 1968. His bones, along with over 100 tools and tool fragments, were buried together and covered in a red ocher, indicating a tribal burial ceremony. Although some of the tools have been on display over the last nearly half century, the boy’s remains were put up for safekeeping, despite the fact that Sarah Anzick, daughter of the ranch owners, was doing genome research in the late 1990s when researchers returned the bones to her family. Anzick wished to conduct genome research on the remains, but because of another extremely public and sensitive case in the news at that time, she decided to not potentially unleash further tribal outrage and put the remains up for safekeeping.
In 2009 an archaeologist named Michael Waters, familiar with the genome mapping work of European paleobiologist Eske Willerslev, got in touch with Anzick and suggested she allow Willerslev to conduct a mapping sequence of the boy’s genomes. This type of DNA work has come a long way since even the late 1990s, much less 1968, when the burial site was uncovered. Anzick agreed, with the condition that she be part of the project. Willerslev, a researcher at the University of Copenhagen, extracted some DNA from deep inside the bones to see what connection there is between the Clovis peoples and other American peoples since. One of two migration theories would be disproved.
The results are unarguably conclusive. The Clovis people were not originally European. The Clovis boy disproves the alternative theory of the Europeans’ early migration to the Americas. Instead, the indigenous people of present-day America and South America are all descended from a single group that made the journey from Siberia across the Bering land connection. Interestingly, the original population to have made the journey split into two groups at an early stage, probably right before or during the time when the northern and southern continents were dividing. Thus the Clovis boy’s genome mapping shows a much greater relationship between him and the people of South America and Mexico than with the European people. It’s as though at or shortly after the time of his death, his people continued on to the south and were afterwards completely cut off from mixing with the people who had stayed in the north. The DNA of indigenous populations in Canada and Greenland is closer to the latter group.
It is inconclusive at this time whether or not Native people in the United States are more closely related to the Canadian or to the South American populations, as contemporary U.S. Natives do not support DNA research and there are no samples. The child’s remains will be interred later this year in a ceremony overseen by the Crow people of the US, who Willerslev and Anzick included in sociopolitical aspects of the project.
By Julie Mahfood