11,500-year-old infant remains reveal ancient population

Ancient remains of infants were found at the Upward Sun River base camp depicted here.

Story highlights

  • DNA from a 11,500-year-old infant skeleton revealed a previously unknown ancient population
  • The Ancient Beringians, as well as all Native Americans, can be traced to one population that migrated from Asia

(CNN)The skeletons of two ancient infants, who lived and died in Alaska 11,500 years ago, are helping tell the story of a previously unknown population called the Ancient Beringians, according to a study published in the journal Nature on Wednesday. This is the first genomic evidence that all Native Americans can be traced back to the same population that migrated using a land bridge.

Both infants found in the burial pit at Upward Sun River, in the Tanana River valley in central Alaska, were female. The local indigenous community gave them the symbolic names Xach'itee'aanenh t'eede gaay (sunrise child-girl) and Yełkaanenh t'eede gaay (dawn twilight child-girl).
    The first child was between 6 and 12 weeks old when she died, and the other was premature, not having had the chance to live, at 30 weeks of development. DNA suggests that they were related, like first cousins.
      Researchers were able to sequence the genome of sunrise child-girl, referred to in the study as USR1, using her DNA. She was revealed to be closely related to Native Americans, but in a distinct way.
      USR1's DNA led the researchers to determine that they had found a previously unknown genetic population of Native Americans, which they dubbed Ancient Beringians, that represent the oldest known genetic lineage of Native Americans to date, according to Eske Willerslev, study co-author and professor at the University of Copenhagen.
      "It changes our understanding of the timing of events that formed the genetics of Native Americans," Willerslev wrote in an email.
        Beringia was the land bridge that once connected Siberia and Alaska. It has long been thought that the peopling of the Americas happened when a group migrated from East Asia 34,000 years ago, using the land bridge, to form the first population of ancestral Native Americans.
        The Upward Sun River discovery site in Alaska.