DNA taken from the skull of an ancient, six-week-old baby could help shed light on how early humans first populated the Americas, a new study published in the journal Nature reports.
The remains come from an 11,500-year-old child, who researchers unearthed from a burial pit in central Alaska. The girl — known as “sunrise girl-child” — is significant because she belonged to a previously unknown Native American population that descended from the first people to come to the Americas.
A group of international scientists uncovered part of the infant while digging at a prehistoric encampment in Alaska’s Tanana River Valley in 2013. By studying her DNA, the team managed to determine that a single ancestral Native American group split from East Asians about 36,000 year ago. Then, thousands of years later, they crossed the land bridge. From that point, the founding group split into two lineages roughly 20,000 years ago.
The first of those lineages — which were the ancestors of modern Native Americans — traveled south of the huge ice caps that covered much of North America between 20,000 and 15,000 years ago before spreading out across North and South America.
The infant analyzed in the study belonged to the newly identified second lineage, known as the Ancient Beringians. Researchers are not sure what happened to the population, but they do know they eventually disappeared and may have been absorbed into another group.
These findings shed new light on human ancestors and give researchers a better idea of how they spread across the world. Further study of the remains could help scientists get a better idea of ancient populations and finally know how early humans moved into the Americas.