Our ancestors are part us…or the other way around?

By Razib Khan | November 20, 2013 1:34 pm

Keeping a close watch on media representations of the new Nature paper on the ancient Siberian genome. Here’s The New York Times, 24,000-Year-Old Body Is Kin to Both Europeans and American Indians. I don’t have a problem with the title, but the roll-out isn’t totally accurate in what it will connote to the audience in my opinion:

he genome of a young boy buried at Mal’ta near Lake Baikal in eastern Siberia some 24,000 years ago has turned Tout to hold two surprises for anthropologists.

The first is that the boy’s DNA matches that of Western Europeans, showing that during the last Ice Age people from Europe had reached farther east across Eurasia than previously supposed. Though none of the Mal’ta boy’s skin or hair survive, his genes suggest he would have had brown hair, brown eyes and freckled skin.

The second surprise is that his DNA also matches a large proportion — some 25 percent — of the DNA of living Native Americans. The first people to arrive in the Americas have long been assumed to have descended from Siberian populations related to East Asians. It now seems that they may be a mixture between the Western Europeans who had reached Siberia and an East Asian population.

The Mal’ta boy was aged 3 to 4 and was buried under a stone slab wearing an ivory diadem, a bead necklace and a bird-shaped pendant. Elsewhere at the same site some 30 Venus figurines were found of the kind produced by the Upper Paleolithic cultures of Europe. The remains were excavated by Russian archaeologists over a 20-year period ending in 1958 and stored in museums in St. Petersburg.

The issue I have is that modern Europeans are a new population which emerged through admixture processes over the past ~10,000 years. And one of those populations which contributed to their ancestry are the descendants of the Siberian boy! Talking about “Western Europeans” ~20,000 years ago is geographic convenience. They wouldn’t be “Western Europeans” as we understand them genetically. Even if there wasn’t any recent admixture, ~1,000 generations of drift is not trivial. Though the archaeology may clarify, I also don’t think it is definite that the ancient Siberians were from Europe as we’d understand it. Perhaps they all come from a common Central Eurasian stock which diversified?

Not that I have a better solution for terminology.

MORE ABOUT: Siberian boy

Comments (9)

  1. dxie48

    “Talking about “Western Europeans” ~20,000 years ago is geographic
    convenience. They wouldn’t be “Western Europeans” as we understand them genetically.”

    Nobody was even there in the first place.


    “Sites of human occupation reappear in northern France, Belgium,
    northwest Germany, and southern Britain between 15,500 to 14,000 years ago.”


    “The earliest human reoccupation of Siberia does not begin until 21,000 years ago. Evidence of this persists mainly in the south around Lake Baikal, as at the Studenoe site, for example.”

    It is apparent which one come first.

    • Karl Zimmerman

      There should have been “Europeans” remaining in refugia in Spain, Italy, and the Balkans even during the Last Glacial Maximum, so it isn’t right to imply that Europe was scoured clean during this period.

      That said, looking at ice-age maps, it seems clear why there was a “West Eurasian” so far east There was at times an unbroken ice wall across Siberia. This would have kept separated groups which migrated north from Central Asia and those which migrated north from South China. Interestingly though, there is a corridor which spreads far, far to the East. One can easily see.how this would allow for some “West Eurasians” to migrate quite far east indeed. Even during times the ice wall was not in place, the territory between was likely usually polar desert and unlikely to be habitable.

      Once the climate warmed enough, it’s easy to see how the Ancient North Eurasians could expand to the East, and the Ancient East Eurasians to the North, and the twain would beat somewhere in the northern part of the Russian Far East or Beringia proper.

      • dxie48

        “There should have been “Europeans” remaining in refugia in Spain, Italy,
        and the Balkans even during the Last Glacial Maximum, so it isn’t right
        to imply that Europe was scoured clean during this period.”

        Whoever they were,


        “The record of this maternally inherited genetic group, called Haplogroup H, shows that the first farmers in Central Europe resulted from a wholesale cultural and genetic input via migration, beginning in Turkey and the Near East where farming originated and arriving in
        Germany around 7500 years ago,” says joint lead author Dr Paul Brotherton, formerly at ACAD and now at the University of Huddersfield, UK.

        What he meant by wholesale, for example,

        http://www.nature.com/ncomms/journal/v4/n4/full/ncomms2656.html“Haplogroup H dominates present-day Western European mitochondrial DNA
        variability (>40%), yet was less common (~19%) among Early Neolithic
        farmers (~5450 BC) and virtually absent in Mesolithic hunter-gatherers”

        They were not from the European refugia.

        • MrJones

          “They were not from the European refugia”

          Or maybe they were

          In South America you can get people who are 95% Iberian autosomally but with Native American mtdna i.e. Spaniard and Native American woman whose daughter married a Spaniard whose daughter married a Spaniard whose daughter married a Spaniard etc.

          It’s the *interplay* of the y dna, mtdna and autosomal that gives you the whole story not just one piece.

          – neolithic male and neolithic female dna advances up the Danube and settles in central europe.

          -paleolithic male and paleolithic female dna is pushed back to the periphery

          – a neolithic decline followed by *male-mediated* paleolithic advance from the periphery back into the core leading to a mostly paleolithic male and mostly neolithic female final result.

          • dxie48

            Now the data for the paternal line.

            Read what your Prof. Steve Jones said,


            “Prof Jones and colleagues at University College London, spent years
            creating a genetic map of the Y chromosome, which is passed by males
            from generation to generation. The results show the Welsh are related
            to the Basques of northern Spain and southern France and to native Americans. All are descended from the Kets people of western Siberia.”

            More recent results,


            “After all, no R1b has been found in Europe before a Bell Beaker site
            from the 3rd millennium BC and today many Europeans (most in western
            Europe) belong to this haplogroup. As more Y chromosomes are sampled
            from ancient Europe, it will become clear if the R1b frequency actually
            shot from non-existence to ubiquity over a short span of time, and the Y
            chromosomes after the transition will be practically clones of each other.”

    • MrJones

      “Nobody was even there in the first place…It is apparent which one come first”

      Is it?

      1. Hyperborean population spreading from Iberia (NW Africa?) to Siberia in a crescent shape.

      2. Then population split in two by the ice.

  2. You forgot to mention that the Mal’ta results are 37% South Asian. Apparently he had brown hair, brown eyes, and freckles.

    In case nobody noticed, we ain’t in Kansas anymore, Toto.

  3. toto

    The NYT quote describes a gene flow from Old Europeans -> Old Siberians -> Native Americans.

    But the graph at the top of your previous post suggests a gene flow from from Old Siberia to both Old Europe and Native Americans.

    I’m not sure the Nature article actually allows to pick a side between these two.

    I’m wondering how much of this could be caused by a common Old Asian, different from the modern, highly derived East Asians (basically the “ancestral South Indian”). Andamaners who moved north and sent genes here and there – or even maybe provided a large component of the Native American genome. Modern South Americans look a lot like North Indians, whereas children of mixed European and East Asian ancestry don’t.

  4. Paul Conroy

    I’ll bet that had this been an adult skeleton, it would have looked like a Cro-Magnon, as I predicted a few years ago that Cro-Magnons came from the Siberia-NE Asia area


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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