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.

Changing Planet

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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.