Study of Ancient Teeth Reveals Native American Origins Lie in Siberia
A team of researchers has launched another attempt answering questions about Native American origins, in other words when and how the Americas were first populated. By analyzing DNA samples and a database of hundreds of ancient teeth, they have concluded that Native Americans did not descend from the Japanese Jomon people, as has previously been hypothesized.
Research into understanding the origins of Native Americans has preoccupied experts for decades, with research focusing on the so-called Bering Land Bridge which once connected modern-day Russia and Alaska. ( U.S. National Park Service )
Centuries-Old Obsession with Native American Origins
Research into this fascinating subject has preoccupied experts for decades. In fact, according to the National Parks Service , the question of when and by whom the Americas were first populated has been analyzed since the 1500s. During this era, theories abounded, including the idea that Norsemen had crossed into North America via Greenland.
By the 1800s this idea was replaced by an obsession with a possible land bridge between Asia and North America, though the seeds of this idea were first planted by Fray Jose Acosta back in 1590. In the 1700’s, the Russian Czar funded an expedition by the explorer Vitus Bering to explore the north-eastern coast of Asia. Bering confirmed the existence of land between the Chukchi Peninsula and the North American continent. Several geographical features, including the Bering Strait, were named after him.
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The conventional Bering Land Bridge theory posits that North America was first populated by humans who crossed onto the continent about 13,500 years ago via a long-lost land bridge between Siberia and Alaska. Based on the analysis of spear points found near Clovis in New Mexico, and later all around the Americas, experts decided that no humans had existed in the Americas prior to Clovis, and so the first humans to migrate into the Americas must have arrived around 13,000 years ago. This was dubbed the Clovis-First Model, and it supported the land bridge theory.
The similarity between stone artifacts unearthed at Native American archaeological sites in the United States (A, C, F, G and H) and artifacts from the Jomon hunter-gatherers from Japan (B, D, E, I, J and K) led archaeologists to believe that Native American Origins lay in Japan. (Davis et. al. / Science)
Out-Of-Japan Native American Origins Hypothesis
Native American peoples have long been assumed to have originated in the Northeast Asian maritime region, such as Japan. Scientific evidence of this idea has been based on the study of stone artifacts discovered in North America, Japan and other parts of Northeast Asia. In fact, archaeologists have long believed that Native Americans were descended from the Jomon people of Japan, a pre-historic hunter-gatherer population who are best remembered for their pottery. This idea was based on the similarities between stone tools used by Native Americans and by Jomon people in Japan.
According to Sci News , a study published as recently as 2019 explained that archaeologists had unearthed 189 stone artifacts in a lower archaeological layer dating back as far as 15,000 to 16,000 years ago. The stash included projectile points and blades, and was located at Cooper’s Ferry, western Idaho in the United States. “The oldest artifacts uncovered at Cooper’s Ferry… are very similar in form to older artifacts found in northeastern Asia, and particularly, Japan,” explained Loren Davis, author of the study.
Experts have hypothesized that these Japan-based hunter-gatherers spread into the Americas along the northern coast of the Pacific, crossing into northwestern America via the Bering Land Bridge. Meanwhile, Ancient Origins reported on an April 2021 study which used retrospective sea-level mapping to argue that “rather than having trekked across a harsh overland passage over the Bering landmass, America’s first people hopped across a string of islands.” This theory has been called the Stepping-Stones hypothesis.
These theories have been hotly debated, not just in scientific circles, but by Native Americans also, who claim they are “simplistic” and “culturally biased”, explains Voice of America . Over the decades, all branches of science have weighed into the debate, with new evidence changing our understanding of Native American origins and migration into the Americas.
Native American origins are not to be found in Japan, concludes a new study of ancient Jomon and Native American teeth. (Richard Scott / University of Nevada, Reno )
New Study of Teeth Provides Insight into Native American Origins
A new study published in the journal Paleoamerica focused on the analysis of pre-historic teeth, which, according to lead author Richard Scott of the University of Nevada, are “more conservative” and “don't change much over time” reports United Press International .
The study tapped into an already existing dental morphological database, which assessed the structure and form of hundreds of teeth, in order to test the proposed relationship between the Japanese Jomon and Native Americans. Scott and his team used a new program developed by a Portuguese doctoral student to analyze more than 1,500 dentitions discovered within the Americas, Asia and the Pacific.
“It is basically a Bayesian algorithm designed to calculate the probability that an individual demonstrates the morphological characteristics of one of the five geno-geographic groups - East Asian, American Arctic, non-Arctic American, Southeast Asian and Austral-Melanesian,” explained Scot in United Press International .
By using this new method, Scott and his team concluded that Native Americans were not in fact descended from the Jomon people of Japan. “[The Jomon are] dentally very different from any Native Americans,” explained Scott on NEVADA Today . As can be seen image above, “Jomon and Native American teeth are physically different in shape and orientation.” In fact, only seven percent of the Jomon teeth analyzed showed any resemblance to Native American samples.
Rather than Native American origins being found in Japan, the study posits that Native American ancestors are from further north, closer to Siberia, based on similarities between ancient Native American and Siberian teeth. "Our work pretty much falls in line with the Beringian Standstill hypothesis," which claims that ancient Siberians reached Beringia around 25,000 years ago, and only started to migrate south from 15,000 years ago.
The study also discusses the genetic similarity between ancient Siberian and Native American populations, and this genetic analysis also found little similarity between the Japanese Jomon and the ancient Native Americans. In fact, their results were so conclusive that Scott was quoted by the Daily Mail as saying: “The Incipient Jomon population represents one of the least likely sources for Native American peoples of any of the non-African populations.”
This genetic and dental evidence seems to contradict theories of Native Americans originating in Japan. “We found that the human biology simply doesn't match up with the archaeological theory,” said Scott in the Daily Mail . Nevertheless, the team cautioned that their study was limited to Jomon teeth and DNA samples dating back to less than 10,000 years ago, after humans had already reached the Americas.
The study of teeth samples found little relationship between the Jomon people of Japan and Native Americans. (Scott et. al. / Paleoamerica)
What Does This Mean for the Study of Native American Origins?
The results of this new study seem to support scientific research which argues that humans travelled along the Pacific coast into the Americas far earlier than previously believed. One such study, published in September 2021, announced that human footprints dating back 23,000 years had been excavated in New Mexico which would push back the timeline for human migration into the Americas by 10,000 years. Known as the Last Glacial Maximum, this was a time when glaciers would have made travel between modern-day Russia and the Americas by crossing the Bering Land Bridge impossible.
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In United Press International Dennis H. O'Rourke, from the University of Kansas and co-author of the study, highlighted that “there are many unresolved questions, including: When did people first arrive in the Western Hemisphere? What route did the first people take to move south beyond the ice sheets of the Last Glacial Maximum and how rapidly did they disperse into the continents?”
Whether they came from Siberia, Japan, or another location, "the peopling of the Americas is a white person's problem,” stressed the anthropologist Charles Riggs in UPI when speaking about the plethora of archaeologists and anthropologists preoccupied by finding answers to these questions. Native Americans “have their own origin stories,” explained Scott.
Top image: Portrait of Native American man. The study of Native American origins has long obsessed archaeologists and anthropologists. Source: Chinnachote / Adobe Stock
By Cecilia Bogaard