Scientists Uncover 'Lost' Population of Ancient Siberians and Closest Old World Relative of Native Americans

Researchers have uncovered evidence of a "lost" group of people who lived thousands of years ago in northeastern Siberia, casting new light on the migrations which eventually brought people to the Americas.

In the study, published in the journal Nature, the international team also analyzed human remains discovered at another site in the region which exhibited strong genetic links to Native Americans—the first time such a close relative has been identified in the Old World.

For the study, the scientists analyzed the DNA of 34 individuals who lived in various parts of northeastern Siberia between around 32,000 and 600 years ago.

The team—led by Eske Willersley from the University of Cambridge and the University of Copenhagen—described the lost group as "Ancient North Siberians" who lived in the region during the last Ice Age.

They were identified through the extraction and analysis of DNA from two human milk teeth—which have been dated to 31,600 years ago—uncovered from a site called Yana. The two individuals from whom the teeth came are the oldest humans ever to be found in this region.

According the the scientists, Yana was likely home to around 40 individuals, while the larger population in the area was probably closer to around 500 people. They likely survived by hunting animals such as woolly mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses and bison, as evidenced by various remains and materials found by researchers.

Although humans are known to have inhabited northeastern Siberia for more than 40,000 years, our understanding of the history of the region is limited—an issue the researchers were trying to address with this latest study.

"We investigated this region as the early population history was still poorly understood," Martin Sikora, an author of the study from the Lundbeck Foundation Centre for GeoGenetics, told Newsweek. "The sites we studied included Yana, which are over 30,000 years old, the earliest human remains in the far northeast of Siberia. We were interested in understanding who those early peoples were, and how they related to contemporary Siberians.

"We sequenced and reconstructed the entire genomes of the individuals, using ancient DNA extracted from the remains—teeth or bones. The genomes were then compared to other modern and ancient genomes, to learn about their genetic relationships and reconstruct their population history," Sikora said.

The results of the study reveal a complex history of human migrations in the region, according to Sikora. "The key finding is that northeastern Siberia was a surprisingly dynamic place," he said.

"We document at least three major population turnovers in the region, with the earlier peoples showing very different ancestry to the peoples inhabiting the region today. We also found that the earliest group of ancient north Siberians was surprisingly diverse, despite the remoteness of the location."

Among the most significant findings, the researchers found that these Ancient North Siberians had genetic links to West Eurasian and East Asian peoples, suggesting mixing had taken place. But the team found no genetic traces of the people discovered at Yana anywhere else later than 31,600 years ago, which could be a sign that their culture died out.

Furthermore, analysis of DNA extracted from the 10,000-year-old remains of an individual found at the Kolyma River in Siberia showed that the individual had traces of Ancient North Siberian ancestry. However, the majority of their DNA was attributed to another group, which the team have dubbed the Ancient Paleo-Siberians.

This group, they say, provides a "missing" genetic link to many Native Americans living today.

"We could show that despite being related to one of the ancestral lineages of Native Americans, the peoples at Yana were not their direct ancestors," Sikora said. "The 10,000 year old individual at Kolyma River, on the other hand, is the closest old world relative of ancestral Native Americans among ancient humans studied so far."

It is widely thought that the first people to settle in the Americas crossed over the land bridge that once connected Siberia and Alaska—called Beringia—around 15,000 years ago.

Archaeological Site Yana River
Researcher Alla Mashezerskaya maps the artefacts in the area where two 31,000-year-old milk teeth were found. Elena Pavlova