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In the DNA of an ancient infant, scientists find traces of the very first Americans

Deborah Netburn, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

Across a span of 11,500 years, a baby is speaking to us.

Although she was just an infant when she died, her diminutive remains are helping researchers understand how ancient people first entered and then moved around the Americas.

The little girl recently was given the name Xach'itee'aaneh T'eede Gaay (Sunrise Girl-Child) by indigenous people in the Alaskan interior who live close to the place where her body was found.

Archaeological evidence suggests her family buried her with care in a pit beneath the central hearth in their temporary home. They laid her to rest on a bed of ocher and placed offerings of weapons around her makeshift grave.

Centuries later, her tiny skeleton was unearthed during an archaeological dig, and, with the permission of local indigenous tribes, samples of her bones were sent off for DNA analysis.

Scientists were stunned by what they revealed: This little girl was born into a previously unknown population of pioneers who were among the first to arrive in North America.

 

The discovery, reported Wednesday in Nature, has both complicated the story of how humans spread throughout the Americas and brought it into clearer focus, said Ben Potter, an anthropologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who worked on the new study.

"No one can deny that this makes our picture of the history of Native Americans more complex and more accurate than ever before," he said.

David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School, hailed the new work as a crucial step toward better understanding how the earliest migrants to the New World diversified once they got here.

"This is an important finding, as it constrains possible scenarios for the early peopling of the Americas in significant ways," he said.

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