Northeastern Siberia has been inhabited by humans for more than 40,000 years but its deep population history remains poorly understood. In a new study, published in the journal Nature, researchers investigated the population history of the region through an analysis of 34 ancient human genomes that date to between 31,000 and 600 years ago. The analysis revealed a previously unknown group of Paleolithic people, called Ancient North Siberians, who are distantly related to early West Eurasian hunter-gatherers.
“The Ancient North Siberians were a significant part of human history, they diversified almost at the same time as the ancestors of modern-day Asians and Europeans and it’s likely that at one point they occupied large regions of the northern hemisphere,” said co-lead author Professor Eske Willerslev, from St John’s College at the University of Cambridge and the Lundbeck Foundation Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen.
The Ancient North Siberians endured extreme conditions in the region 31,000 years ago and survived by hunting woolly mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses, and bison.
Their DNA was recovered from the only human remains discovered from the era — two tiny milk teeth — that were found in a large archaeological site near the Yana River.
Known as the Yana Rhinoceros Horn Site, this locality was found in 2001 and features more than 2,500 artifacts of animal bones and ivory along with stone tools and evidence of human habitation.
“The Ancient North Siberians adapted to extreme environments very quickly, and were highly mobile,” said co-lead author Dr. Martin Sikora, also from the Lundbeck Foundation Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen.
“Our findings have changed a lot of what we thought we knew about the population history of northeastern Siberia but also what we know about the history of human migration as a whole.”
The team estimates that the population numbers at the site would have been around 40 people with a wider population of around 500.
The genetic analysis of the milk teeth revealed the two individuals sequenced showed no evidence of inbreeding which was occurring in the declining Neanderthal populations at the time.
“Remarkably, the Ancient North Siberians people are more closely related to Europeans than Asians and seem to have migrated all the way from Western Eurasia soon after the divergence between Europeans and Asians,” said co-lead author Professor Laurent Excoffier, from the University of Bern.
The researchers also found the Ancient North Siberians generated the mosaic genetic make-up of contemporary people who inhabit a vast area across northern Eurasia and the Americas, providing the ‘missing link’ of understanding the genetics of Native American ancestry.
Martin Sikora et al. The population history of northeastern Siberia since the Pleistocene. Nature, published online June 5, 2019; doi: 10.1038/s41586-019-1279-z