Scientists Make A Discovery, Unlock Secrets About Ancient Human DNA

In the 1860s, Swiss chemist Friedrich Miescher discovered human DNA. This revelation helped scientists unlock secrets about our ancient ancestors. Even in 2018, researchers were making new discoveries. This particular excavation revealed several ancient secrets, including a previously unknown group of ancient humans. Read all about their discoveries here.

Two 11,500-Year-Old Skeletons

Archaeologists from Alaska work to dig up two human skeletons.
Adrienne Mathews/Pinterest
Adrienne Mathews/Pinterest

In 2018, archaeologists unearthed the skeletons of two Native American infants. Both were 11,500 years old and part of the same family.

These were not normal skeletons. They were well-preserved enough to inform scientists about early humans. In fact, they provide information about the first humans to ever visit North America.

Researchers Traveled To A Remote Area In Alaska

A view from a helicopter shows a remote river in Alaska.
DeAgostini/Getty Images
Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

In the early 2000s, anthropology professor Ben Potter began working in Upward Sun River, Alaska. This forested area is 50 miles from Fairbanks and can only be reached by helicopter.

Despite the difficult terrain, Potter had good reason for excavating there. That part of Alaska was originally connected to Europe and Africa.

What Is Beringia?

A map shows what Beringia would have looked like, and how humans might have traveled along it.
Doron Voro/Pinterest
Doron Voro/Pinterest

When Pangea began breaking up, some strips of land still connected the continents. The earliest known humans were born in Africa, but they migrated across the world.

Beringia was the bridge that connected Siberia and Alaska. Many archaeologists believe that the first North American humans came from that bridge, over 34,000 years ago. However, this was just a theory.

The Beringian Standstill Hypothesis

A portrait shows an Arikara man published in Volume V of The North American Indian (1909).
© Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
© Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Although many historians believe that early humans crossed Beringia, they do not know who did so. One theory, called the Beringian standstill hypothesis, attempts to answer this.

The hypothesis says that the “Ancient Beringians” lived on Beringia in isolation due to the ice and harsh climate. If this is true, the Beringians might be the sole ancestors of all Native Americans, according to archaeologist Jennifer Raff.

In Fact, Natives Still Live Near Upward Sun River

Athabascan Indian Jack Hobson is photographed.
Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The name “Upward Sun River” is a translation from the Athabascan Xaasaa Na’, the language of the Native Americans who still live in Alaska. It is also part of their territory.

Potter collaborated with the Natives for his excavations. Usually, they are very protective of their burial grounds; however, they understood the importance of Potter’s work and offered to help him.

The First Discovery: A Three-Year-Old Child

Archaeologists dig for artifacts in Alaska.
Getty Images
Getty Images

In 2010, Potter and other researchers from the University of Alaska searched Upward Sun River. They discovered the cremated remains of a three-year-old child.

At 11,500 years old, this discovery was exceptionally rare. Unfortunately, the skeleton was not preserved enough to extract DNA from. Scientists could not even figure out the gender.

Despite The Letdown, Potter Didn’t Give Up

An aerial view shows Mount Redoubt in Alaska.
Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images
Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

Despite their limited success, Potter and his team did not give up. They continued to excavate in that area for eight more years.

Then, Potter and his colleagues, José Víctor Moreno Mayar and Lasse Vinner, found their big break. They unearthed a burial site in an area of Alaska that was around 15,000 years old.

Finally, They Found The Skeletons Of Two Infants

There, Potter and his team discovered two infant skeletons. One seemed to be a stillborn; the other was between six and 12 weeks old.

Like the three-year-old, the two seemed to have been cremated, as their remains rested on a fire pit. However, these remains were much more preserved and easier to identify.

The Burial Ground Was Well-Preserved

An archaeologist picks up an artifact from a burial ground as another archaeologist points at another.
ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images
ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images

The two infants were buried beneath multiple items and covered in red ochre. This ochre, which was likely part of the funeral process, further preserved the skeletons.

The babies were also buried beneath a mixture of sand and soil. This high-acidity mixture is ideal for conservation. Clearly, the people who buried them loved them dearly.

Who Were The Two Girls?

GettyImages-772227943
Charles Phelps Cushing/ClassicStock/Getty Images
Charles Phelps Cushing/ClassicStock/Getty Images

DNA testing revealed that both infants were girls and that they were both related, possibly first cousins. The stillborn died at 30 weeks old, having never gotten the chance to live.

The local Native community named the girls Xach’itee’aanenh T’eede Gaay” (Sunrise Girl-Child) and “Yełkaanenh T’eede Gaay” (Dawn Twilight Girl-Child).

Other Items Were In The Grave, Too

Paleolithic stone spear heads are laid out.
DEA/A. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini via Getty Images
DEA/A. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini via Getty Images

This gravesite was clearly important to the mourners. Archaeologists discovered many other items in the grave, such as antler and spear points.

Both girls were buried together in a joint funeral. However, Sunrise Girl (the six-week-old infant) seemed to be better preserved and served as the basis for most of the DNA results.

What, Exactly, Were The Researchers Studying?

A diagram portrays the mitochondria.
SkieTheAce/Pixabay
SkieTheAce/Pixabay

To examine the DNA, geneticists had to dig into the mitochondria. Science students remember the mitochondria as “the powerhouse of the cell” because, without it, cells die.

Every cell in the body contains DNA, and the mitochondria is responsible for running cells. Hence, the scientists need undamaged cells to examine–which is easier said than done.

Here’s Why They Couldn’t Study The Three-Year-Old

A researcher holds up a test tube with a DNA sample they're studying.
SSPL/Getty Images
SSPL/Getty Images

Old bones are not guaranteed to have live cells. If scientists want to examine DNA, they need a thick enough bone that is decently preserved.

Usually, researchers test the petrous bone, which is at the base of the skull. Because the three-year-old’s bones were too damaged, researchers could not test the DNA. But with the two infants, they could.

What Came From The DNA Tests?

A researcher picks up a vial of DNA for forensic testing.
Anton NovoderezhkinTASS via Getty Images
Anton NovoderezhkinTASS via Getty Images

The first round of DNA tests, performed at the University of Alaska, revealed the ethnicity of Sunrise Girl. According to the results, she was closely related to Native Americans, but in a distinct way.

Scientists believe that her DNA is far older than any previously tested remains. In other words, she is a previously unknown genetic population of Native Americans.

They Revealed A New Ancient Human

An illustration shows Native Americans from multiple different tribes, 1800.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This previously-unknown DNA, which scientists dubbed USR1, dates back at least 20,000 years and possibly as far back as 34,000. Eske Willerslev, the study’s co-author and professor at the University of Copenhagen, says that they are the oldest known Native Americans to date.

“It changes our understanding of the timing of events that formed the genetics of Native Americans,” Willerslev told CNN Health.

They Might Be Ancient Beringians

A Native American woman wears a long dress, 1913.
Jim Heimann Collection/Getty Images
Jim Heimann Collection/Getty Images

Sunrise Girl’s DNA lends credence to the Beringian standstill hypothesis. Scientists believe that she might be an Ancient Beringian that experts had only theorized about beforehand.

“We think the explanation for this pattern, the one that requires the least movement, was that Native Americans were somewhere in Beringia 20,000 years ago,” explained Victor Moreno Mayar, another author of the study.

But The Two Girls Had Different DNA

A researcher holds a vial of sample DNA.
Scott Gries/Getty Images
Scott Gries/Getty Images

The first DNA analysis was done on the six-week-old’s skull. Geneticists expected the second infant to have similar DNA. But surprisingly, she didn’t.

Dawn Twilight Girl the stillborn, was examined at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. She had an entirely different maternal lineage compared to her first cousin, and the lineages were not related.

Researchers Say There Were Two Branches Of Native Americans

In 1894, a party of Native Americans travel through the snow.
MPI/Getty Images
MPI/Getty Images

Geneticists have separated Native Americans into two branches: Northern and Southern. The Northern group came from East Asia and likely inhabited North America, including Alaska and Canada.

At some point, the group split and the Southern Native Americans migrated to South America. They all descended from the Ancient Beringians, but the separation created variations in their DNA.

The Two Infants Had Different Ethnicities

Brule-Teton Sioux woman wears traditional clothing in this photo.
Getty Images
Getty Images

In simpler terms, DNA tests indication that both girls belonged to two separate groups. Sunrise Girl belonged to the Ancient Beringias, while Dawn Twilight Girl came from another ethnicity, one more closely related to the Northern Native Americans.

This begets the question: how did these two groups of people end up in the same place at the same time?

However, Sunrise Girl Belonged To A Mysterious Third Group

A Native American chief is photographed.
Duy Nguyễn/Pinterest
Duy Nguyễn/Pinterest

Surprisingly, Sunrise Girl did not belong to either of these groups. This means that the Ancient Beringians split into at least three groups, if not more.

With demographic modeling, scientists estimated that Native Americans left East Asia 36,000 years ago. By 20,000 years ago, this group split. But if they split, why were these two infants buried together?

All Groups Split Off From One

A 19th century artist portrays the faces of many different Native Americans.
Buyenlarge/Getty Images
Buyenlarge/Getty Images

In the study, archaeologists hypothesized that the two groups stuck together at least once–hence why the girls were related. They proposed two possibilities for this.

The Beringians might have split before crossing the bridge, only to reunite later. Or, the Beringians might have separated after crossing. Potter prefers the latter theory.

Perhaps They Split Before Beringia

A map shows how humans traveled across Beringia.
Roxanne Songbird Anderson/Pinterest
Roxanne Songbird Anderson/Pinterest

Potter has a theory for how these two groups came together. During an interview with The Atlantic, he suggested that both groups independently crossed Beringia. Perhaps they traveled on different paths at separate times.

Usually, this theory would seem a bit far-fetched. But there is some evidence to back it up.

Support For Potter’s Theory

Aboriginal paintings of a now-extinct tiger line a cave.
Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

In 2017, archaeologists examined the Bluefish Caves in Canada’s Yukon Territory. According to a study on these caves, scientists found evidence of human-cut markings that were 24,000 years old.

If this is accurate, as Raff believes it is, then humans had crossed Beringia at least 24,000 years ago. That was over a decade before the two girls were born.

Still, There Are Many Unanswered Questions

An illustration shows how the ancient beringians might have lived.
Linda Roy/Pinterest
Linda Roy/Pinterest

Although the discovery of the girls proved many hypotheses, it also raised several questions. What happened to the Beringians? How did they get to Siberia in the first place?

Given how rare these findings are, it is unlikely that these questions will be answered soon. And to make things more complicated, not all experts are on board with Potter’s theories.

Some Experts Argued Against Potter’s Conclusions

A woman holds up a dropper filled with dna samples to study.
MAURICIO LIMA/AFP via Getty Images
MAURICIO LIMA/AFP via Getty Images

The main argument against this finding is just that: It’s a single finding. Dennis O’Rourke, a geneticist and archaeologist, says that the one sample is not enough evidence to study the entire human population.

“We could know something about the extent of diversity in this early Beringian population with greater certainty if we had multiple genomes,” O’Rourke told The Smithsonian Magazine.

However, These Findings Are Exceptionally Rare

An archaeologist excavates in 1992.
MOLA/Getty Images
MOLA/Getty Images

But finding more than one sample is easier said than done. “It’s hard to impress upon you how rare they are,” Potter told The Atlantic.

According to co-researcher Willerslev, before this finding, scientists only had modern-day Alaskans and Siberians to study this genome. Without more samples, nobody will know where the Beringians came from.

Plus, Upward River Is Too Young For Ancient Humans

River rapids rush in Alaska.
Edwin Remsburg/VW Pics via Getty Images
Edwin Remsburg/VW Pics via Getty Images

Despite the age of Upward River’s burial grounds, archaeologist Brian T. Wygal claims that it is too young to understand early humans.

“The earliest proven trace of human activity in eastern Beringia dates to around 14.1-thousand-years-ago,” Wygal explained, “making the Upward Sun River site nearly 3,000 years too young to be representative of the initial human colonization of the New World.”

What Happened To The Beringians?

An illustration shows an Native American chief from the 18th century.
Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images
Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

After Potter’s study released–which is in the scientific journal Nature–many have asked what happened to the Beringians. “We don’t know,” Potter told CNN.

Again, this question needs more evidence to answer. However, Potter plans to take DNA samples from the neighboring residents. Since scientists know what Beringian DNA looks like, they can determine if the gene still exists in Natives

What Were The Beringians Like?

In this 1850 painting, a Native American hunts bison.
Getty Images/Getty Images
MPI/Getty Images

Research has revealed a snapshot of the Beringian’s life. According to Potter, they were expert hunters, eating bison, elk, rabbits, squirrels, and birds.

They likely hunted through organized parties. Potter also found evidence of “salmon exploitation” dating back 6,000 years, meaning that the Beringians likely fished and traded as well.

They Might Have Evolved Into The Modern Native Americans

A line of ancient people travel to hunt.
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Potter suggested that the Beringian gene might have assimilated into the indigenous peoples of Alaska. This is a natural consequence of evolution.

“It is possible that incoming Athabaskan ancestors, who are widespread throughout the region today, replaced or absorbed the Ancient Beringians inhabiting that area,” Potter claimed. If that is true, many people might have Beringian blood and not even know it.