May 12, 2023 I Paul Seaburn

New Evidence Reveals Ice Age Human Migrations from China to the Americas

Genealogy studies were once limited to historians, those who enjoyed spending months in libraries, and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. DNA ancestry tests opened these studies to anyone willing to provide a sample and a fee. Both can trace family trees back hundreds of years, but names eventually are lost and then roots end. The quest is then turned over to archeologists and anthropologists who search for the first members of a cultural or ethnic group settle in an area. Those scientists have helped track the migration of early humans from Africa. They also tracked the migration of Siberians across the Bering Land Mass to the Americas. However, some ancient remains don’t fit that scenario and DNA fails the search. That is where mitochondrial DNA can help. A new study combined contemporary and ancient mitochondrial DNA to follow a path of female lineage from northern coastal China to the Americas during the last Ice Age. This may be the missing link that explains genetic, geological, and archeological evidence found across North, Central and South America showing that many waves of humans traveled from many areas of Europe and Asia to settle in many different areas. Despite the frigid temperatures of the Ice Age, it turns out the Americas were still a melting pot.

It is time to add a new line of migration from northern China to the Americas

“The Asian ancestry of Native Americans is more complicated than previously indicated.”

In a study published in the journal Cell Reports, first author Yu-Chun Li, a molecular anthropologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, admits that the long-accepted explanation that the first Native Americans were migrants across the now non-existent Bering Land Bridge from what is now eastern Siberia has been challenged many times, but those challenged have been far more difficult to prove than the Siberian link. As anthropologists moved south from Canada and northern North America to southern North America, Central America and northern South America, they found signs of ancestral lineage different than those leading back to Siberia. Yu-Chun Li led a team of researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in a project looking for mitochondrial DNA that could link the founding populations in Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, and California to East Asia.

While the human nuclear genome has 3.3 billion base pairs of DNA, the mitochondrial genome has only 16,569 base pairs that are linked exclusively through maternal family ties. The team suspected a rare lineage known as D4h was the key, so researchers from China’s Kunming Institute of Zoology collected DNA samples from over 100,000 “contemporary” humans and 15,000 ancient DNA samples which came from all across Eurasia. From that DNA pool, they located 216 contemporary and 39 ancient individuals belonging to the rare D4h lineage. The team then identified accumulated mutations and geographic locations where these 255 individuals lived, carbon-dated the age of each of them and built a tree linking the ancients to the contemporaries. That tree – also called a branching event or radiation – showed those individuals carrying the rare D4h mitochondrial left northern China in two different waves in the height of the last Ice Age and as it was dying down and traveled across the Pacific to the Americas on a path far different than the Bering Land Bridge.

As summarized in the project’s press release, the first “radiation event” occurred between 19,500 and 26,000 years ago during the Last Glacial Maximum, when northern China was frozen over and unfit for human habitation. This was before the Bering Land Bridge was suitable for crossing so sailing and island-hopping across the Pacific Ocean was the only way to reach hospitable land – in this case, the Americas. The researchers then found a second radiation event triggered by a different cause. Between 19,000 and 11,500 years ago, the Last Glacial Maximum was winding down and northern China was becoming inhabitable again. This led to a rapid expansion in population growth, which led to overcrowding. With the area more suitable for overland travel, these migrants again headed for the Pacific Ocean and sailed to parts unknown which eventually became known as the Americas … and one more place.

"We were surprised to find that this ancestral source also contributed to the Japanese gene pool, especially the indigenous Ainus."

In a surprise discovery, the mitochondrial DNA of Native Americans was found to match a group of native people in Japan as well. This side branch to Japan helped explain what archeologists in the Americas had begun to suspect – there is an ancestral link between the Paleolithic peoples of China, Japan, and the Americas. Why did they suspect this? It turns out the weapons of the three regions were very similar. Arrowheads, spears and other pointed projectiles found in all three areas were surprisingly alike. Senior study co-author Qing-Peng Kong, an evolutionary geneticist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, put it best:

"This suggests that the Pleistocene connection among the Americas, China, and Japan was not confined to culture but also to genetics."

It all 'points' to arrowheads and spears

One more genetic link between the three groups would solidify the case, since mitochondrial DNA is present only on the mother’s side. That genetic link came from Y chromosomal DNA from Native Americans which shows that they had male ancestors living in northern China at the same time as these females carrying the rare D4h strain of mitochondrial DNA.

Is this enough to drop the mic and declare this is proof the Americas became a melting pot of Siberians and Chinese ancestors during and after the last Ice Age?

"The origins of several founder groups are still elusive or controversial. Next, we plan to collect and investigate more Eurasian lineages to obtain a more complete picture on the origin of Native Americans."

Qing-Peng Kong says that, as always, more work needs to be done. More shared mitochondrial DNA may be found as researchers obtain samples from more modern Eurasians and compare them to additional samples of ancient DNA found by archeologists and anthropologists. The end result just might be that all of those genealogy studies and DNA tests are for naught – we’re all related and descended from people brave enough to embark on dangerous trips to unknown and uninhabited lands to protect the futures of their offspring for generations to come.

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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