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New DNA Study Reveals Lost History Of The Paleo-Eskimo People

August 31, 2014
Image Caption: Family photo of an Eskimo mother, father, and son, photographed in Noatak, Alaska, by Edward Sheriff Curtis circa 1929. Credit: United States Library of Congress/Public Domain

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

The Paleo-Eskimo people that lived in the Arctic from roughly 5,000 years ago to about 700 years ago, were the first humans to live in the region and survived there without outside contact for more than 4,000 years, researchers reported Friday in the journal Science.

In addition, lead investigator Eske Willerslev of the Centre for GeoGenetics at the Natural History Museum of Denmark and her colleagues report that the Paleo-Eskimos represented a distinct wave of migration that was separate from both the Native Americans (who crossed the Bering Strait far earlier than the Paleo-Eskimos) and the Inuit (which traveled from Siberia to the Arctic several thousand years later).

“The North American Arctic was one of the last major regions to be settled by modern humans,” the museum explained in a recent statement. “This happened when people crossed the Bering Strait from Siberia and wandered into a new world. While the area has long been well researched by archaeologists, little is known of its genetic prehistory.”

According to BBC News, much of our understanding of this culture’s history was based on artifacts acquired by archaeologists. In order to discover a more complete picture of the Paleo-Eskimos, however, Willerslev and more than 50 experts from institutions all over the world conducted a new genetic analysis and discovered that they and modern-day Native Americans arrived in separate migrations.

Furthermore, their research revealed that the culture included very few female members, said Heather Pringle of National Geographic. In fact, by analyzing the diversity in maternally-inherited DNA in genetic samples suggested that there might have been just one woman traveling along with the Paleo-Eskimo migrants, leading Willersley to tell Pringle that she could not recall “any other group having such low diversity.”

Jennifer Raff, a geneticist and anthropologist at the University of Texas, Austin, who was not one of the authors on the Science study, called it a large step forward in Arctic studies. She told National Geographic, “This research has answered several important questions about North American Arctic prehistory,” demonstrating, for example, that Paleo-Eskimos are genetically distinct and arrived separately from the ancestors of the Inuit.

The research team obtained bone, teeth, or hair samples from 169 ancient human remains from Arctic Siberia, Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. However, as Pringle noted, it was difficult to find enough ancient DNA as few of those samples contained well-preserved genetic material. The reason for this, they explained, is because the ancient cultures often buried their dead on the surface instead of digging graves that would have protected them from the repeated freezing and thawing that ultimately damaged or destroyed the DNA.

As a result, Willerslev and her colleagues were only able to acquire whole genome data from 26 of the samples. None of the samples covered more than 30 percent of the genome, and most of them yielded 10 percent or less, the National Geographic reporter said. However, the researchers were able to adjust, taking account of the damaged DNA and the missing data, and “extracting the most information possible out of difficult samples,” Raff said.

One thing the study was unable to determine, the authors said, is why the Paleo-Eskimos disappeared around the same time that the ancestors of the Inuit beginning to colonize the Arctic. However, they did conclude that there is little doubt that the Inuit ancestors, who reached Greenland around 700 years ago, were technologically superior to their predecessors.

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Source: Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online



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