New genetic evidence suggests that all people of Native or indigenous descent in North America are descendants of a single migratory group that arrived on the continent around 20,000 years ago. Published in the journal Nature, this study was based on the genomic profiles of two infants who died over 11,000 years ago in what is now Alaska. The genetic information from one infant, called “Sunrise Girl-child” by members of the local Native community, indicated that the infant belong to a previously unknown population of Native Americans. This revelation has led study authors to conclude that this original group of migrants then split into two upon arriving in North America, with one group known as the Ancient Beringians settling in Alaska while the other spread throughout the continent.

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Researchers from the University of Cambridge, the University of Copenhagen, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks uncovered the infant remains and expected that DNA analysis would align with the known genetic profiles of people of indigenous descent in North America. What they found surprised them. “We didn’t know this population existed,” said Ben Potter, one of the study’s lead authors and professor of anthropology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “These data also provide the first direct evidence of the initial founding Native American population, which sheds new light on how these early populations were migrating and settling throughout North America.”

Related: How volcanic eruptions in Iceland and Alaska affected ancient Egyptians

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From the data gathered from the genetic remains, the team was able to confirm that an original ancestral migrant group split from East Asian populations around 35,000 years ago, then split again around 20,000 years ago following their arrival in North America. The study also reinforces the previously accepted Standstill Model, which states that the descendants of the single group remained in what is now Alaska until about 11,500 years ago. 

The critical importance of this conclusion, if it is correct, is that it provides support for the view that a single founding population from Northeast Asia gave rise to all the native peoples of the Americas,” said antropologist Gary Haynes, according to Gizmodo. “This is a significant finding which establishes that all the pre-Columbian native peoples of the New World are members of one family tree.”

Via Gizmodo

Images via Ben Potter and Eric S. Carlson