Ancient DNA from Montana Skeleton Holds Clues to Native American Ancestry

A Native American man from the North American Great Plains. Photo by Chris Johns/National Geographic Creative

DNA from the skeleton of an ancient boy from Montana may just hold clues revealing who the first Native Americans were and where they came from.

A recent paper in the journal Nature details the results from the 12,500-year-old infant boy’s genome. The boy, nicknamed Anzick-1 in reference to the owner of the land where he was found, was buried with items associated with the well-known Clovis culture of North America. The DNA showed clear evidence that early Native Americans, and specifically the Clovis, were closely related to people from Asia rather than Europeans as some scholars had previously suggested. It also showed that the genetic make-up of Native Americans today is older than 12,500 years. The high-resolution data came after months of collaborations with more than forty researchers across several universities.

Photo by James P. Blair/National Geographic Creative
Photo by James P. Blair/National Geographic Creative

How does Anzick-1 compare to modern Native Americans? He belonged to mitochondrial DNA (maternal) haplogroup D4h3a, a rare yet well-known haplogroup among Native Americans. This haplogroup was found in a 10,000 year-old skeletal sample from western Canada, as well as in a few populations in California. However, it is more common in Mexico and across western South America. His Y chromosome (paternal) haplogroup was Q-L54, also found in low frequency in North America yet common (~20%) among native Mesoamerican and South American populations. The rest of his DNA also showed greater similarities to populations further south, and less to those living in the Rockies, Great Plains, and the surrounding regions of North America.

What does that mean? The researchers conclude that Anzick-1 was likely part of a population that was ancestral to most Native Americans. However, North America received secondary migrations from Asia, some of which brought the ancestors of modern Eskimos. These late-coming secondary migrations made some North American groups genetically distinct.

Y Chromosome haplogroup Q in the Americans
Y Chromosome haplogroup Q in the Americans

Are you related to Anzick-1? Join the Genographic Project and learn about your haplogroups, and find out when and how your ancestors migrated across the globe.

Learn More

Ancient DNA Links Native Americans 
Testing the Genetic Diversity of College Students in New York City
Weaving Together the Traditions of the Lowa Women in Nepal

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Dr. Miguel Vilar is the Science Manager for National Geographic's Genographic Project. Miguel is also a molecular anthropologist and a science writer. His fieldwork has taken him to remote places throughout the South Pacific, East Africa, Mesoamerica, and the Caribbean. In the laboratory he researches the modern genetic diversity of human populations from Melanesia, Micronesia, North and Central America, and the Caribbean. Miguel has published in several anthropology and genetics journals, as well as popular science magazines.