A widely held theory about the origins of Native Americans has been hit hard by a new genetic analysis of ancient teeth, implying that the ancient inhabitants of what is now America weren’t who we thought they were. were.
The theory, largely based on archaeological evidence found at Native American sites, claims that First Peoples came to the continent from Japan around 15,000 years ago. Stone tools and other stone artifacts used by Native Americans bear similarities to those of the Jōmon people, a diverse hunter-gatherer people who lived in ancient Japan from around 14,000 to 300 BCE.
Based on this and analysis of their migration across the continent, it has been suggested that Native Americans crossed the northern shore of the Pacific Ocean, across the Bering Land Bridge – a dry land that connected the Siberia and Alaska during the last ice age – until they reached the northwest coast of North America.
This may still be true, however, a study published in the journal PaleoAmerica found that Native Americans were likely not descendants of the Jōmon people of Japan. The team, led by Professor Richard Scott of the University of Nevada-Reno, analyzed ancient teeth found in the Americas, Asia and the Pacific. Native American teeth showed little relationship to those of the Jōmon people, with other genetic tests showing the same result.
“We have discovered that human biology simply does not fit archaeological theory,” Professor Scott said in a statement. “We don’t dispute the idea that ancient Native Americans arrived via the Pacific Northwest coast – only the theory that they originated with the Jōmon people in Japan.”
With only 7% of Jōmon people’s tooth samples linked to non-Arctic Native Americans, and supporting genetic evidence, it is likely that Native Americans came from elsewhere.
“These people (the Jomon) who lived in Japan 15,000 years ago are an unlikely source for Native Americans. Neither skeletal biology nor genetics indicate a connection between Japan and America,” Scott added.
“The most likely source of the Native American population appears to be Siberia.”
Although the team is confident in its findings, the study was limited by teeth and DNA samples taken from Jōmon people less than 10,000 years old, after the first Native Americans are believed to have arrived on the continent. The team believe the samples are “valid proxies” for the Jōmon population that had lived in Japan for 5-6,000 years prior.
Adding to the evidence that the first Americans did not come from Japan is a new footprint found in an ancient lake bed in what is now White Sands National Park in New Mexico. The footprints date back to between 23,000 and 21,000 years ago, long before we previously thought humans had arrived on the continent.
“In light of the findings, this means that the first migrations would have come via Asia, over the Bering Land Bridge and into Alaska. We previously thought they would move south after about 16,000 [years ago] when the ice caps melted and a migration corridor opened up, but the earlier White Sands date shows humans were already in the Americas,” co-author Dr. Sally Reynolds told IFLScience. team who confirmed that the footprints were made by humans “This means that humans migrated to the Americas much earlier, but still by the same route.”
It’s not yet known if the footprints are definitively linked to Native Americans, but for now it seems the old theory that Native Americans left Japan has been debunked.
“The nascent population of Jomon,” Dr. Scott concludes, “represents one of the least likely sources for Native American peoples among all non-African populations.”
A version of this article first appeared in October 2021.