The newly released genetic studies have found the strongest relationship between certain Amazonian tribes, such as the Karitiana, Surui, and Xavante, and the Indigenous Peoples of Papua New Guinea, two regions that are coincidentally among the most linguistically diverse in the world. A Xavante village is seen here.

Two Studies Find Ties Between Native Americans and Australia; Disagree on Everything Else

Alex Ewen

Two new research studies, published in two separate scientific journals, have found that the DNA of certain Amazonian Indian tribes are similar to those of the indigenous inhabitants of Australia and Melanesia. However, as often happens in genetic studies of American Indians, the two research groups offered sharply contrasting interpretations of what this data means for how the Americas were first peopled.

The suggestion that peoples from Oceania had at one time populated the Americas is not new and recent genetic studies now largely confirm admixture between Polynesians and Native Americans before European contact. Moreover, some ancient skeletons from South America have been found to have similar appearances to indigenous Australians, leading a few to speculate that there had been ancient contact.

RELATED: New Study Shows Native Americans Traveled to Easter Island Before European Contact

Pontus Skoglund, a post-doctoral researcher at the Harvard Medical School who co-authored the study published in Nature on July 21, “Genetic Evidence for Two Founding Populations of the Americas,” noted the similarities between ancient Australian and American Indian skeletons had never been taken seriously because, “there has always been this question of how statistically informative this morphology [the study of structures such as skeletons] is, and to what extent this actually reflects population relationships.” So the group was surprised to find traces of genetic markers among some South American Indians that were “more closely related to indigenous Australians, New Guineans and Andaman Islanders than to any present-day Eurasians or Native Americans.”

“I think almost no geneticists would have expected this,” Skoglund says. “What it tells us in terms of history, which is more important, is that there was a greater diversity of Native American ancestral populations than people previously thought.” The strongest relationship is between certain Amazonian tribes, such as the Karitiana, Surui, and Xavante, and the Indigenous Peoples of Papua New Guinea, two regions that are coincidentally among the most linguistically diverse in the world. According to the Harvard study, the date when this genetic mixing occurred is so old that the two groups may have split off before the populating of Australia, more than 40,000 years ago. But this admixture is only found in certain South American Indians, and not at all in North American Indians.

Chart of certain genetic relationships between Native Americans and indigenous Australians and other Indigenous Peoples of Oceania. Red means greater similarity. (Courtesy of Nature magazine)

“This suggests that there is an ancestral population that crossed into the Americas that is different from the population that gave rise to the great majority of Americans. And that was a great surprise,” says study co-author David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard University. The Harvard team named this mysterious ancestral group, “Population Y,” from the word Ypykuéra, meaning ancestor in Tupí, the language spoken by the Surui and Karitiana. How and when these ancestors migrated to the Americas, the Harvard team does not attempt to determine based upon their data. Skoglund speculates that “there were perhaps multiple pulses of people into the Americas, and they had slightly different proportions of this ancestry. But which of the pulses came first and which different routes they took, we just don’t know.”

A far more different interpretation of this and other genetic data comes from the study in the journal Science, published on July 22, entitled “Genomic Evidence for the Pleistocene and Recent Population History of Native Americans.” Led by scientists from the Center for Geogenetics at the University of Copenhagen and the University of California, Berkley, this team also found traces of Australasian ancestry in some South American natives, although it was not as strong as that reported by the Harvard team in Nature. The study in Science had a greater scope, according to Maanasa Raghavan, a molecular biologist in Copenhagen and co-author of the report, with the goal to “bring together genomic, archaeological and other research on modern and ancient peoples of the Americas to come up with a clearer picture of how the continents were populated.”

According to the Copenhagen/Berkley team, “the ancestors of all present-day Native Americans, including Athabascans and Amerindians, entered the Americas as a single migration wave from Siberia no earlier than 23 thousand years ago (KYA), and after no more than 8,000-year isolation period in Beringia. Following their arrival to the Americas, ancestral Native Americans diversified into two basal genetic branches around 13 KYA, one that is now dispersed across North and South America and the other is restricted to North America.”

Of course the idea put forward by the scientists from Copenhagen and Berkley, that all American Indians are descended from one ancestral group, directly contradicted the conclusions of the Harvard study, whose authors were quick to react. Reich countered on the BBC that, “both studies show that there have been multiple pulses of migration into the Americas” and in Smithsonian Magazine that “there’s another early population that founded modern Native American populations.”

Furthermore, to somehow account for the Oceanic genes found in South American Indians, Rasmus Nielsen, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and one of the authors of the study in Science suggested that, “the relationship between Native Americans and Australasians could be the result of Alaskan populations that are genetically closer to Australasians, such as the Aleutian Islanders.” Reich dismissed this possibility. “I think that’s very weak—it’s very, very speculative,” adding that the one-migration model is “not a clear alternative,” because it would have left genetic clues in the migration from north to south; “We have overwhelming evidence of two founding populations in the Americas.”

Critics of the Science study also noted that the small sample size used make the study’s conclusions less persuasive, an argument scoffed at by Nielsen, who defended his teams scholarship, “It’s nothing about the sample; it’s all in the interpretation.” And in the end he is right. Vastly divergent interpretations from genetic studies regarding the settlement of the Americas are actually the norm, as the genetic data can only offer clues, but cannot provide answers. Maybe those answers will be forthcoming in the future, but right now, it is clearly anybody’s guess.

RELATED: Bering Strait Theory, Pt. 6: DNA, Blood Types and Stereotypes

RELATED: More Reasons to Doubt the Bering Strait Migration Theory

RELATED: How Linguists Are Pulling Apart the Bering Strait Theory

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Opichi's picture
Submitted by Opichi on
I think all of their findings are still skewed by the medieval Great Chain of Being, a belief in hierarchical descent in which humans are distinctly superior to animals, who are superior to plants, who are superior to earth itself. By thinking that way they will always be looking for the "original man," Adam style, or more recently, for Eve. But other studies, not filtered through ideas about human evolution, state that all life on earth descended from a single cell organism 3.5 billion years ago, and "the probability that humans were created separately from everything else is 1 in 10 to the 6,000th power." So if this is true: given the dynamic and volatile movement of winds and waters in early planetary life, this single cell organism was probably pretty widespread before it started hooking up into multiple cell organisms and eventually, plants, animals, humans. Maybe that's when the really major migrations took place - at the single cell stage - and maybe people eventually sprung up in multiple places, as is told in Indigenous creation stories world wide. And then people traveled, not just out from Africa, but out from the Americas, too, on that two-way bridge (Deloria), and by boat, and so on. Like in the article linked above about Easter Island says, they found not only DNA but also sweet potatoes, which are definitively American. Hello, logic check: what does that tell you? Just sayin' ... ;-) #AmericaAlsoPeopled&FedTheWorld

ppmickey's picture
Submitted by ppmickey on
I wish they could all come together on what is clear and what isn't. Even as far as naming the different groups of Indigenous peoples in different countries and in the case of the USA, with the same names given instead of differing names. The Bering Strait Theory has been proven for especially the Inuit and Western Indigenous peoples. There were three known groups of Neanderthals that came of out Africa before a more modern man did. When modern man came out of Africa, there is proof in ruins that there was interbreeding between Neanderthal men and modern women. Neanderthal women and modern men were unable to produce children. So in the mtDNA, we all, every race, have some small amount of Neanderthal genes in our bodies, especially those who came out of Africa. It took many years for these groups to move on. There are those who are believed to have gone to the steppes of Europe and the further north they went, the lighter their skin became to be able to get as much Vit. D out of the sunlight as was possible. Another group went into the area of India. It is believed that this group had a percentage of peoples that went by boat to Australia and that the Aboriginal tribes in Australia come from this group, as do the Indonesians, people of the Phillipines and possibly Polynesians. Another group went to Russia, where remains were found in a cave called Denisovan. These people were the Denisovians. They may be responsible for some of the populations on the Western continent of Asia. They are also believed to have gone over the Bering Strait, hence my statement above. However, it gets harder once you get to Mexico, DNA becomes a problem, which is also true of Indians in Florida, Georgia, SC, NC and in the southwestern states, especially California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Nevada. Wherever the Spanish went they fathered children, by forced marriages or rape. Very few tribes escaped their influence because it was accept Christianity of the Catholic faith or die. So DNA probably shows up with Spanish genes in all but tribes that were recently discovered in the Amazon rain forests and some who hopefully can stay hidden and never be found and influenced by other peoples. Different studies show different things. Polynesian blood is found in many Central and South American tribes. There were voyages made by Lief Ericson, some of whom settled in the areas of Nova Scotia. There is also a belief that some of the northeastern, eastern, southeastern and tribes in between the Atlantic and the Mississippi River are, or could have been populated by early people from Europe. There's even a tribe of white Cherokee Indians who are recognized by about themselves, not even the Eastern Band of Cherokees recognize this group of peoples. I believe in God and believe he is responsible for the Big Bang theory. Up until the arrival of DNA to recognize distinctive groupings of people, we all took it for granted that we were from the countries our parents, their parents, etc. came from. With DNA, that's not so. We all came from out of Africa. Neanderthals are believed to have given traits passed on such as straight hair, blue and green eyes, white skin, rare genetic diseases that are passed among certain families, especially those who have interbred too much. They are thought to have passed on conditions like Autism and other behavioral/developmental problems. I think anthropologists need to get together and decide on names for whatever groups came out of Africa and where they went. Scientists doing DNA need to get together with anthropologists and get the names straightened out. The map above may be wrong that shows the different patterns of migration. Who knows? DNA is still somewhat new and we are still making discoveries about genetic problems inherent in some peoples to this day, such as poor people passing DNA causing poorness in subsequent generations. Or, the trauma in DNA that is passed among tribal generations. The thing that bothers me is how someone is raised, especially when it comes to Indigenous people in different tribes. How a person is raised determines who they are or will be. If I had been raised on the Cherokee Indian Reservation, I would consider myself to be a Cherokee, even though I'm only 1/8th Cherokee and no Native American DNA has been found for me or my brother on the DNA testing we were given. Our Grandfather was said to have been full blooded Cherokee. He was probably only partial Cherokee. However we do come from a line of Cherokee Chiefs from the Eastern Cherokee Nation. I found our relatives in the full-blooded Cherokee Dawes rolls. I've also heard about many of the other rolls that were done for the Eastern Band Cherokee by a DNA cousin I've met online through's DNA project. So it does come down to a nature vs nuture? Or is a DNA thing that makes one originate from a tribe? I think a lot more discoveries will be made that will really lead us further back as far as DNA analysis continues to develop further.

Chris Gray
Chris Gray
Submitted by Chris Gray on
Have to disagree with this. I have found this mix in several Choctaw(and Woodland) DNA results such as this person's