Changing Planet

Using Ancient DNA to Uncover the Hidden History of Patagonia

How far will Genographic Project scientists go to help reveal where we came from? Geographically-speaking the answer may be Puerto Williams, the southern tip of Chile where jagged snow-covered mountains meet the blue sea creating a drastic and unforgettable landscape. Genographic Project grantee Dr. Marta Alfonso-Durruty has immersed herself in this corner of South America to analyze dozens of ancient human skeletons, some from southern Chile’s earliest known settlers.

Dr. Marta Alfonso-Durruty examines a 4,000-year-old skull from Patagonia, Chile. (Photo by Miguel Vilar)

Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, and the surrounding islands of Chile and Argentina are some of the most remote places on Earth where humans have lived since the Ice Age ended some 10,000 years ago. The earliest known evidence of human occupation in southern Patagonia is approximately 12,000 years old in the form of chipped stone tools, while some of the oldest human skeletons found in various parts of Patagonia are almost as old.

Looking across Beagle Channel to Tierra del Fuego (Photo by Miguel Vilar)
Narrow channels and jagged snow-covered peaks dot the Chilean landscape (Photo by Marta Alfonso)

“Of all places in the world, southern Chile is one of the most important anthropologically, historically, and biologically-speaking,” noted Dr. Alfonso-Durruty. “As the southernmost point in the Americas, and arguably the Earth’s southern tip, this area provides a baseline against which we can answer questions such as: Who were these people that first reached and settled in this remote terrain?”

Dr. Alfonso-Durruty, a Chilean anthropologist, is analyzing these ancient human remains, specifically looking for well-preserved teeth from which to extract DNA. The ancient DNA extracted from these teeth will be compared to that from modern Fueguian populations in this picturesque part of the world. To collect such samples, Dr. Alfonso-Durruty is working with the Yagan, Selknam, and Kaweshkar communities that still live in southern Chile. “Today, descendants of these ‘canoe people’ are found in the few remaining communities that inhabit the insular areas of the region. Working with these communities is essential to understand the connections between the deep and recent histories of the people from this unique corner of the world.”

A sculpture of a Selknam man from Patagonia, Chile stands on the shores people have inhabited for more than 10,000 years. (by Marta Alfonso)

Some researchers have postulated that Polynesians may have once reached the coast of Chile settling among the people already there. Others believe that indigenous Fuegians were all but decimated by disease and slavery at the hands of European colonists. How much Polynesian or European DNA still exists in Fuegians today is one question Dr. Alfonso-Durruty will be poised to answer soon.

The view across Beagle Channel to Tierra del Fuego was a combination of smooth waters and wild mountain shapes.  (Photo by Miguel Vilar)
The view across Beagle Channel to Tierra del Fuego was a combination of smooth waters and wild mountain shapes. (Photo by Miguel Vilar)

The picturesque lands of southern Chile were also the site of explorer Ferdinand Magellan’s eureka moment in his intrepid journey to circumnavigate the world. Today, the narrow waters he once sailed that connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans still hold his name. Following in Magellan’s wave prints, three hundred years later biologist Charles Darwin traversed the same waters in search of another path—one that would connect fossils to modern life. His evolutionary ideas would pave the way for the work of Genographic Project scientists like Dr. Alfonso-Durruty today.

Read more updates from Genographic Project grantees and stay tuned to learn more from our research in southern Chile.

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.
  • Pilar Durruty

    Hallazgos que serán muy importantes en la historia de algunos nuestros pueblos aborígenes

  • Dick Beck

    How does all this fit in with the discoveries found in other parts of the world?

    • The southern tip of Chile is, in a sense, the furthest humans migrated after leaving Africa. What the results say about this, we will soon find out.

  • Peter

    “A sculpture of a Selknam man from Patagonia, Chile
    – Actually that statue is located in Porvenir, in Tierra del Fuego.

  • Sofia de la vega

    To the fellow who said how does this relate to other finds?…to me it says that polynesians also reached the Americas before the Eurpeans did. Even before Viking settlements found in Newfoundland in North of Canada. If the DNA proves the mix of peoples…this is very exciting.

    Dr. Durruty felicitaciones.

    • Yes, we will see what the results say about Polynesians in Chile!
      Thank you Sofia, Dr. Alfonso-Durruty and I are eager to see what we will discover.

  • Paul Gill

    Geno 2.0 is a completly useless dna test, total waste of money.

    1. It is incomplete in everywhichway.
    2. You have no way of finding out anything about the people who are in your group. For example, I am Ydna J1-Z1853, they say that 0.3% of all the participants are J1-Z1853, but only 5 of us have shared their story and we know nothing about the rest 2111, as to who they are(ethnic group) or where they are from(Nationality), The National Geographic Genographic Project can at least give us that much information about the participants without jeopardizing their privacy. Only this tiny little information can make this test very valuable.

    • Paul, thank you for the comment. That is where we plan to move the project in the next few months, but as you know privacy is at the core of the project.

  • Helen Burr

    How Do I get a DNA test done, as my mums ancestry is suppose to have Aborigine but people are saying no….it was in court that she is and the Head aborigine people need proof….i thought a DNA test would show if we are or aren’t can you help.
    My mother was adopted at 6 weeks and so was her twin a different family. my mother knew she was adopted but the twin Joan didn’t…My Nan & Pop tried to get them together but the other family didn’t turn up. It wasn’t till they were on to their 50th Birthday, that Aunty Joan rang Mum to arrange a meeting. When they were young they were identical. A few years later my mother recieved a phone call from Lorna who said that they share the same father. My mother was shocked but Aunty Lorna explained how that was to be….most people knew about the twins but didn’t say anything…..then a few months later she was of Aboriginal Decent….but the Aboriginal want proof even though the court had said we are…So that is why I need to do DNA. i don’t know how much it is and even if we can get ancestry DNA here. Please help I really need to know who I am….regards Helen

  • Ruth Hendrix

    Will the findings be part of the 2.0 results?

  • marita bradley

    Me hice el text de GENO 2.0
    resultados, esperando
    al leer esta informacion de la patagonia Chilena estoy anciosa de saber mi procedencia multi multi
    soy de Chile y pura mescla
    creo que este proyecto es espectacular

    • Gracias por participar, y mantengase en contacto en los proximos meses cuando empezamos a publicar lo que aprendimos de nuestro trabajo en Patagonia.

  • Len Saari

    Would like to see the same study done on the (elongated) heads in Peru and environs, and try to determine how (or who) the gigantic stones came to be.

    • That would be a fascinating study. We have a collaborating researchers in Peru, as well, stay tuned.

  • Philip Butler

    What were the results?

    • We are still analyzing the results, but will begin to publish the results in the next few months and present them at Academic meetings starting this April 2016.

  • claudio

    Miguel, i am seeing there are results for Argentina.

    can you tell me how many samples and from which province, region?

    I ve been tested in 23andme, can i transfer the raw data and see my national geographic results?



    Are you having trouble with the above URL (“Read more updates from Genographic Project grantees”) as I did?
    I am using Firefox 45.0.2. For reason(s) unknown to me, the URL is NOT being read correctly or had been typed incorrectly.
    In Fx, hover over the URL, perform a right-click, copy, and paste into a file (notepad) to display: “http://http//”
    Correct this (resource name) by removing the “//http” and pasting the remainder “” (without quotes) into the address bar (enter).
    … as is this complete site.
    Enjoy, Tim

  • Tdbreezy

    So what were the results??

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