Athena Review:  Recent Finds in Paleoanthropology

"X factor" in genetic differences between Asians and Native Americans

New World links seen to ancient Eurasian populations, which may help explain 9300-year old Kennewick Man.

Genetic findings have added a new layer of interest to the already complex tale of the ancient skeleton called "Kennewick Man," discovered along the Columbia River in 1996 in a US Army Corps of Engineers district of Washington state. The nearly intact skeletal remains, found with a stone arrowhead lodged in the pelvic bone, were first thought by forensic anthropologists to be those of a 19th century Causasian male about 45 years old who was killed by an arrow. Radiocarbon dating of a finger bone, however, showed it to have great age, placing it at the end of the Paleoindian era. Local Native American tribes claimed the skeleton for reburial, and with the support of the Corps of Engineers, sequestered the remains from physical anthropologists who have wanted to study them more closely. While curation of the bones is currently very much in contention, a reconstruction has been made of the face with interesting if controversial results.The model.of Kennewick Man by  anthropologist James Chatters and artist Tom McClelland, made from a resin cast of the skull, seems to most resemble the Ainu of northern Japan, an aboriginal race with perhaps more Caucasoid than Mongoloid physical traits.

Resemblances noted between these non-Mongoloid body traits and recent genetic studies may support a link of Kennewick Man with ancient Eurasian populations. The genetic findings were announced earlier this year by Theodore Schurr, a molecular anthropologist from Emory University in Atlanta, at a meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Salt Lake City (discussed by Virginia Morell in Science, Vol. 280, 24 April 1998). The new data, from a genetic marker named Lineage X, suggest definite links between ancient Eurasians and Native Americans.  It implies that ancient European peoples who reached North America after first, presumably, migrating though Asia, still retained a distinct genetic makeup which then passed into New World populations. This would appear to contradict unilateral theories about Paleoindians as migrants from Asia with primarily Mongoloid traits (like present Native Americans). If these Lineage X findings hold up, populations from Europe and the Middle East now seem to have been among the North American continent's early settlers.

The "Lineage X" markers and possible source populations have been studied by Emory researchers Michael Brown and Douglas Wallace, and Antonio Torroni of the University of Rome and Hans-Jurgen Bandelt of the University of Hamburg. Lineage X, a site of genetic variation, is found in mitachondrial DNA (MtDNA) and thus is passed only through the maternal line. It is one of five markers or haplogroups in MtDNA now identified in Native American, of which the other four (A-D) are shared by Asians and Amerinds, in accordance with widely accepted theories of their ancient links.

The fifth genetic marker, Lineage X, occurs at low frequencies in both modern and ancient remains of Native Americans and in some European and Near Eastern groups including  Italians, Spaniards, Finns, Israelis, Turks, and Bulgarians. But Lineage X does not occur in any Asian population, including those of Tibet, Mongolia, Southeast Asia, or Northeast Asia. Brown and his coworkers had expected to find it in Asia  like the other four Native American markers, and are now pressed to account for the gap in their data. One possible scenario that fits well with the Kennewick Man finding is that a group of Caucasians migrated from Europe to North America before 9000 years ago. Researchers note that, besides Kennewick Man, another anomalous early American skeleton is that of the Spirit Cave Mummy from Nevada, which also combines features of Caucasoid and Mongaloid physiques. Further study of the global distribution of Lineage X should help clarify this intriguing new aspect of early American migrations.

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