The earliest Native Americans may have originated in a tiny mountainous region in southern Siberia called the Altai, according to anthropologists.
The Altai is at the intersection of Russia, Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan and "is a key area because it's a place that people have been coming and going for thousands and thousands of years," Theodore Schurr, an associate professor in the anthropology department at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a university news release.
He and his colleagues conducted genetic analyses of people living in the Altai and compared them to Native Americans. They found unique mutations shared by both groups.
The researchers calculated how long these mutations took to arise and estimated that the Altai people diverged genetically from Native Americans 13 000 to 14 000 years ago. That fits with the idea of people moving from Siberia into the Americas between 15 000 and 20 000 years ago, they said in the news release.
More people from Altai
It's possible and even likely that more than one wave of people crossed the ancient land bridge that linked Siberia with North America. However, the Altai is the only geographic focal point from which Native Americans can trace their heritage, according to Schurr.
"It may change with more data from other groups, but, so far, even with intensive work in Mongolia, they're not seeing the same things that we are," he said.
This type of investigation could prove useful in terms of biomedical research. For example, both Siberian and Native Americans "seem susceptible to Westernisation of diet and moving away from traditional diets, but their responses in terms of blood pressure and fat metabolism actually differ," Schurr said.
A combination of genetics research and traditional physical anthropology may help researchers learn more about the factors behind these differences.
The study was published in the American Journal of Human Genetics.
(HealthDay News, January 2012)