Scientists recovered the DNA from an infant — only a few weeks old when she died — buried at the Upward Sun River archaeological site in the interior of Alaska. Their data indicated that the baby belonged to a group of people who were genetically distinct from humans in northeastern Asia, the region that launched a migration into North America over a now-submerged land bridge across the Bering Strait.
However, the data also showed that this group differed genetically from the two known branches of ancestral Native Americans. The unexpected discovery of this Alaskan population offers a new perspective on the first people to settle in the Americas and presents a more detailed view of their migratory path, researchers explained in a new study. [In Photos: Human Skeleton Sheds Light on First Americans]
Many thousands of years ago, the site where the infant lived — albeit briefly — and died was a residential camp with three tent-like structures. The baby, a girl, was buried beneath one of them, along with another female infant who was likely stillborn; later, a third child, who was about 3 years old when he or she died, was cremated in a hearth at the same spot, study co-author Ben Potter, a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, told Live Science.
A burial deep in a pit below the frozen surface helped to preserve the infant's remains — along with viable samples of the baby's DNA and partial DNA from the younger infant. The two were named Xach'itee'aanenh t'eede gaay ("sunrise child-girl") and Yełkaanenh t'eede gaay ("dawn twilight child-girl") by the local indigenous community, according to the study. The researchers worked closely with native representatives while recovering and examining the remains and the rest of the archaeological site, Potter said.