A Clovis boy who died 12,600 years ago may provide the missing link to Native American heritage.
DNA was recovered from the remains of a young Clovis male, who perished in what is now western Montana. The sample is the oldest genetic material ever recovered in the Western hemisphere.
The small child was between 12 and 18 months old. In the only known Clovis burial, the baby was laid into his grave, covered in red ocher, a natural pigment. The boy was buried with 125 artifacts, including spear points and tools constructed from elk antlers. The remains, dubbed Anzick-1, were discovered accidentally in 1968. The grave was uncovered as a front end loader was removing fill. The science of genetics was in its infancy at that time. It is only now that scientists are able to read DNA thousands of years old.
Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, Michael Waters of Texas A&M University and Shane Doyle of Montana State University worked on the study.
Researchers believe the genetic material could provide new insights into the origin of Native Americans, and other indigenous people.
The Clovis people existed from 13,000 years ago to around 12,600 years before the present time. The extinct culture was named after the town of Clovis, New Mexico. It was near there that the first significant collection of tools produced by the society were unearthed.
The study found the Clovis people were direct ancestors of many Native American cultures in the Americas. Researchers are unable to determine, however, why the boy appeared to be more closely related to the people of South America than to those living in what is now Canada.
"Finding someone who is directly ancestral to the entire population of a continent - that just does not happen. I don't think it would ever happen in Europe, or in Siberia. There are very few places where this could happen," Willerslev told New Scientist.
Examination of the DNA also revealed an Asian heritage for the Clovis people. This would support earlier theories that the first humans reached North America over a land bridge, now washed away. That hypothesis has met with disagreement from some critics, who argue the first residents of the New World came from Europe. This new discovery could disprove those ideas.
Controversy continues as proponents of the out-of-Europe (or Solutrean) hypothesis are criticizing the study.
"We definitely have some stuff here in the east of the United States that is older than anything they have in the west. They've been reliably dated to 20,000 years ago," anthropologist Dennis Stanford, anthropologist with the Smithsonian Institution, said.
Details of the study were published in the journal Nature. The researchers said the remains of the infant will be reburied in a formal ceremony in spring or summer later this year.