Coming to the Americas: DNA Tells the Tale

Coming to the Americas
Photo credit: L. Brian Stauffer

A University of Illinois anthropology professor name Ripan Malhi says we can look to DNA to tell the tale of how ancient humans first came to the Americas, as well as what happened to them once they arrived.

Malhi, who is affiliated with the Institute for Genomic Biology at Illinois, took a collaborative approach in his study, working with modern-day Native Americans to study their genetic history.

One example of the work he did involves a study of changes in the mitochondrial genome in the people of the Tsimshian Nation, who live on the northwest coast of British Columbia.  By comparing the mitochondrial DNA of these people with human remains found in the Prince Rupert Island area, he was able to find a direct genetic link between the modern day native peoples of the area and the people who inhabited the area in ancient times.  Mitochondrial DNA is inherited only from the mother.   It is important in studies of ancestry because it is different from other forms of DNA, which are mixed as they are passed from one generation to the next.  Mitochondrial DNA is not mixed so it allow scientists to trace a strict line of descent from mother to child.  In fact, the mitochondrial DNA of a modern-day Native American will be exactly the same as his or her ancient maternal ancestors, allowing a direct link to be made.

Yet other studies conducted by Malhi involved changes in the Y chromosome, a chromosome which is present only in men, and the regions of the genome involved in the coding of protein.

Malhi says he believes that the best way to learn about the evolutionary history of Native Americans and determine just what they effects were of European colonization is to analyze the genome of the current native populations and compare it with that of their ancient ancestors.

He further adds that he believes his lab has a very unique focus from other facilities, looking not only at how people came to the Americas, but also at how they adapted to their new environment and migrated to new locations.

Malhi says he will continue to work in British Columbia, but he is also setting up study locations in California and Illinois in the United States, as well as in the countries of Guatemala and Mexico.

He notes that the native populations along the northwest coast and California were complex societies of hunter-gatherers, while more of those people living in Mexico and Guatemala became farmers and then were then affected by European colonization.

Malhi says that while studying language and artifacts may leave researchers to draw the wrong conclusions about human history, genomic studies can play an important role in telling us a more complete story about what life was like in the Americas, both before and after the European colonists arrived.

Malhi is due to discuss his findings about DNA and what it tells us about how people first came to the Americas at a meeting being held at The Royal Society in London on November 18 and 19 entitled “Ancient DNA: The First Three Decades.”

By Nancy Schimelpfening


Ancient, Modern DNA Tell Story of First Humans in the Americas – EurkeaAlert!

What Is Mitochondrial DNA? – U.S. National Library of Medicine

mtDNA and Its Role in Ancestry – DNA Ancestry Project

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