The history of the Americas has just been rewritten by the DNA of an infant girl from Alaska, who died 11,500 years ago.
Critically, the girl's genome also revealed the identity of a common ancestor her people shared with Native Americans.
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"We didn't know this population existed", Ben Potter, a professor of anthropology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said in a news release. This founding group diverged into two lineages about 20,000 years ago.
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"The study provides the first direct genomic evidence that all Native American ancestry can be traced back to the same source population during the last Ice Age", University of Alaska Fairbanks archaeologist Ben Potter said.
The genome of Xach'itee'aanenh T'eede Gaay shows that Ancient Beringians were isolated from the common, ancestral Native American population, both before the Northern and Southern divide, and after the ancestral source population was itself isolated from other groups in Asia.
Researchers named this population "Ancient Beringians" after Beringia, the land bridge that connected northeast Asia with northwestern North America, during the Pleistocene epoch - sometimes called the Ice Age.
Her skeleton was discovered at the Upward Sun River archaeological site in Alaska in 2013.
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"It would be hard to overstate the importance of this newly revealed people to our understanding of how ancient populations came to inhabit the Americas", Dr Ben Potter, an anthropologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and one of the lead authors of the study, told The Independent. "This new information will allow us a more accurate picture of Native American prehistory".
The infant is now thought to have been one of an entirely different lineage of early settlers in North America. The first spread throughout North and South America and became the ancestors of today's Native Americans. That much has always been assumed, but what wasn't previously known is that the population split off into two groups either before or shortly after coming to present-day America.
The remains of a six-week-old infant cast new light upon the Native American founding population.
The remains of the infant and another like her have been dated to around 11,500 years ago, meaning that by that point the split between Ancient Beringians and Native Americans had already been well established. It not only reveals a previously unrecorded indigenous population, but indicates that humans crossed the Beringia land bridge to reach the North American continent in a single, unified migratory wave from Siberia -a major contribution to the ongoing dialogue about how the first Native Americans got here.
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