Story of the First Americans Unfolding Through DNA Research

From the first peopling of the Americas to European contact, genetic research sheds light on Native American history.

Recent strides in DNA research are beginning to fill many of the gaps left in multidisciplinary scientific attempts to reveal and understand human prehistory. Some of these studies have provided clues to the dispersal of ancient humans across the globe going back tens of thousands of years.

Now, University of Illinois anthropology professor Ripan Malhi is analyzing DNA to tell the story of how and when humans first arrived in the Americas, and then what happened to them afterwards. Through study sites in British Columbia, California, Guatemala, Mexico and Illinois, he hopes to help find long-sought answers to the big, debated questions addressing the who, when, and where of the first Americans and the dynamics of their spread and activity across the Americas.

“The best opportunity to infer the evolutionary history of Native Americans and to assess the effects of European colonization is to analyze genomes of ancient Native Americans and those of their living descendants,” Malhi said. “I think what makes my lab unique is that we focus not only on the initial peopling of the Americas but also what happened after the initial peopling. How did these groups move to new environments and adapt to their local settings over 15,000 years?” Researchers may draw the wrong conclusions about human history when looking only at artifacts and language, he maintains.

Malhi, an affiliate of the Institute for Genomic Biology at Illinois, is taking a collaborative approach to his quest. He works with present-day Native Americans to study their genetic history. By recently cooperating with members of the Tsimshian Nation on the northwest coast of British Columbia, for example, he found a direct ancestral link between ancient human remains in the Prince Rupert Island area and the native peoples living in that region today. That study examined changes in the mitochondrial genome over time. (Mitochondria are structures within eukaryotic cells that convert chemical energy from food into a form that cells can use. Abbreviated as mtDNA, they are inherited by children solely from the mother.) 

Other studies from Malhi’s lab analyze changes in the Y chromosome or the protein-coding regions of the genome. DNA in the Y chromosome is passed from father to son.  

“What’s interesting about the northwest coast and California is that these communities were complex hunter-gatherer societies,” adds Malhi, “whereas in Mexico and Guatemala, it’s more communities that transitioned to farming and then experienced the effects of European colonization.” 

Malhi is reporting some of his findings before the Royal Society in London on Nov. 18 and 19. 



Anthropology professor Ripan Malhi works with Native Americans to collect and analyze their DNA and that of their ancestors. Credit: L. Brian Stauffer


Cover Photo, Top Left: Metlakatla people of British Columbia in ceremonial attire. Wikimedia Commons  


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