Climate change is not a good thing in general, but it’s done wonders for fossil hunters in Siberia who make new discoveries as the permafrost thaws. While not many people seem to be moving to that formerly-frozen land these days, it seems it was once a hotbed (warmbed? coolbed?) of early human species activities. While the Denivosan fossils have been getting all of the publicity lately, the discovery of a couple of 31,000-year-old teeth in far northeastern Siberia have been identified as yet another new group of humans to brave the Siberian cold. Could they possibly have been ancestors of Native Americans? Make some hot chocolate and let’s find out.
"These people were a significant part of human history, they diversified almost at the same time as the ancestors of modern day Asians and Europeans and it's likely that at one point they occupied large regions of the northern hemisphere."
“These people” are the owners of two tiny milk teeth found in 2001 in an archaeological site near the Yana River in the Sakha province known as the Yana Rhinoceros Horn Site. Professor Eske Willerslev, the director of The Lundbeck Foundation Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen, helped sort out the human and animal bones and recently did the DNA analysis which convinced him that these were the teeth of a new human group called the 'Ancient North Siberians'.
“They adapted to extreme environments very quickly, and were highly mobile. These findings have changed a lot of what we thought we knew about the population history of north eastern Siberia but also what we know about the history of human migration as a whole."
Dr Martin Sikora, also from the Lundbeck Centre, and Willerslev co-authored the study published this week in the journal Nature. The discovery is exciting because the DNA shows the Ancient North Siberians were more closely related to Europeans than Asians and survived and thrived as “big game hunters of woolly mammoth and woolly rhinoceros.” Furthermore, they seem to be at the top of the pyramid of peoples that eventually spread across east Asia and North America. Were these the long-sought, Bering landmass-crossing direct ancestors of the first Native Americans?
“[Ancestors of] Native Americans are not the first people in northeastern Siberia as most people, if not everybody, thought.”
Willerslev points out that the Ancient North Siberians, while tough, didn’t survive long enough to be direct ancestors of Native Americans. They were eventually replaced by Ancient Paleo-Siberians, who were themselves replaced about 10,000 years ago by the Neo-Siberians. However, a different DNA analysis of a recent finding of a 10,000-year-old Ancient Paleo-Siberian shows that THEY may be the missing Siberian-to-Native-American link.
“This [DNA] is the first evidence we have, real evidence, of something very close genetically to Native Americans.”
Is this discovery Jeopardy-ready? Not quite. What it shows is that there were a number of very tough and mobile Siberian cultures thriving in that hostile environment as far back as 30,000 years ago when there was still a land mass connecting the two continents. What kept the earlier groups from continuing their eastward march was more likely the ice on the North American side. The DNA of the Ancient Paleo-Siberians is very close to Native American but still no American-supplied tobacco cigar. That fossil is waiting to be found.
This is no reason to root for climate-change-caused melting, but it definitely helps.