Jan 13, 2023 I Paul Seaburn

Another Lost Prehistoric Human Ancestor Discovered in Siberia

When asked to name the top place in the world they would like to live, it is a safe bet that few people choose Siberia. That makes it difficult to accept the idea that it was the chosen home of early humans, Neanderthals and Denisovans. Why would they migrate from Africa and other warmer climates to the frigid air and frozen ground of Siberia? Well, the mystery just got a little deeper – researchers analyzing prehistoric DNA from North Asia were surprised to find out it was from a previously unknown group of hunter-gatherers that lived there 10,000 years ago or more. Another strange discovery – the group disappeared 7,500 years ago. And one more … the people may have not only migrated east from Europe but west from North America across the Bering land mass as well. Who were they? A new species? An amalgam of other species? Why would they leave North America to go to Siberia? Can they help solve the mysterious attraction of Siberia?

“The peopling history of North Asia remains largely unexplored due to the limited number of ancient genomes analyzed from this region. Here, we report genome-wide data of ten individuals dated to as early as 7,500 years before present from three regions in North Asia, namely Altai-Sayan, Russian Far East, and the Kamchatka Peninsula.”

In a study published in the journal Current Biology, study senior author Cosimo Posth, an assistant professor in archaeo- and paleogenetics at the University of Tübingen in Germany, explains the frustration archeologists have had in identifying what people lived in an area now known as North Asia, stretching from western to northeastern Siberia. In particular, the researchers were interested in an area known as the Altai, which was known to have been traversed by prehistoric people traveling between northern Siberia, Central Asia and East Asia for thousands of years. This area – in what is now the place where Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan meet – became famous when fossils found in a cave were identified as Denisovans, another extinct human relative. The Denisovan fossils are merely a few teeth and bone fragments, but those plus eDNA helped identify their genome. Now, Posth was present with 10 prehistoric human genomes found in Altai dating back more than 7,500 years.

“(They were) "a mixture between two distinct groups that lived in Siberia during the last Ice Age."

According to the study, researchers have previously found multiple distinct human genetic lineages in this area dating back to the Upper Paleolithic or Old Stone Age which began 50,000 years ago. At a location in the Altai region known as the Afontova Gora site, they found remains dating back 17,000 years showing ancient North Eurasian ancestry, a common gene pool. After that, there is a 12,000 years gap where the genomic profile of the populations are unknown. Fortunately, the 10 prehistoric human genomes helped solve some of the mystery of their identity.

No, we're not there yet - stop asking. 

Posth explains in Smithsonian Magazine that the ten individuals lived previously in three regions: Siberia’s Altai Mountains, the Kamchatka Peninsula and other parts of the Russian Far East. These regions had the kind of conditions that make one wonder why they moved there - cold climates at high latitudes – but Posth points out that this is the perfect climate for optimal preservation of ancient DNA. As he puts it: “You can actually generate a genome of the same quality as a modern genome. It’s amazing stuff.” How amazing? Posth and his team were able to identify an entirely new population of humans that lived in Siberia’s Altai Mountains during that ‘lost’ time period. That genome was then found in lineages in both Europe and the Americas – so these people eventually headed for warmer and lower altitude regions. The ancient DNA revealed a second group – members of Japan’s Jomon culture who originally came from Siberia and them migrated back west to Altai thousands of years later. Here’s the biggest shocker from the ancient DNA – it revealed that Native Americans migrated back over the Bering Land Bridge  into Asia several times over a span of thousands of years.

“Our analysis reveals a previously undescribed Middle Holocene Siberian gene pool in Neolithic Altai-Sayan hunter-gatherers as a genetic mixture between paleo-Siberian and ancient North Eurasian (ANE) ancestries. This distinctive gene pool represents an optimal source for the inferred ANE-related population that contributed to Bronze Age groups from North and Inner Asia, such as Lake Baikal hunter-gatherers, Okunevo-associated pastoralists, and possibly Tarim Basin populations.”

In other words, the Altai region was a Siberian melting pot 12,000 years ago. And “melting” it was – research shows that the region was slowly warming. That could have been part of the attraction for some of these hunter-gatherers to migrate to a new area or return to the land of their ancestors. The Paleo-Siberians were part of the first wave of humans to migrate over the bridge to the Americas and their genome is in many Native Americans today. The reason for their re-migration back over the Bering bridge before it disappeared is still a mystery. Posth was surprised by the amount of migration across this area: “I expected movement maybe from one valley to another, but here we’re talking about large-scale movement and mobility among these groups across vast areas of North Asia.”

The final surprise was the discovery of one individual in Nizhnetytkesken Cave who was buried with stone points, ornaments and animal claws that indicated he was quite possibly a shaman. Dating back 6,500 years, he lived more recently than the other individuals and his genetic profile was closer to populations from the Russian Far East – a culturally distinct and geographically distant region more than 900 miles west.

Feels warmer today. 

One more thing – the Altai mystery group of hunter-gatherers disappear from that region 7,500 years ago. Where did they go? The study suggests that the continued to migrate – they may be the source of the ancient North Eurasian genomes found in groups like the Tarim Basin mummies and the Bronze Age cultures of the Lake Baikal region of southern Russia.

“(These) geographically distant hunter-gatherer groups showed evidence of genetic connections to a much larger extent than previously expected. This suggests that human migrations and admixtures [interbreeding between groups] were not the exception but the norm also for ancient hunter-gatherer societies."

According to Posth, it appears these ancient humans – and perhaps we modern humans – are genetically predisposed to be wanderers and migrators. Could our modern preference to settle in one area for life – and for generations – be going against our nature and causing some of the problems we have? After all, the song was about a Happy wanderer, not a sad, depressed, sick and lonely one.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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