Planet Earth

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

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanNov 20, 2013 6:34 PM

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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.

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