In the local language, her name means ‘girl of the dawn’, and although she only lived for six fleeting weeks, she has already told scientists more than we knew about the first Native Americans. Sunrise girl-child (“Xach’itee’aanenh T’eede Gaay”) lived about 11,500 years ago in what we now know as Alaska, and its ancient DNA reveals not only the origins of Native American society, but reveals the world whole a population of people forgotten by history millennia ago. “We did not know that this population existed,” says anthropologist Ben Potter of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
It is believed that the first American settlers crossed Alaska from Siberia through the land bridge of Beringia, a land bridge that was submerged at the end of the last ice age.
What is less clear is who these people were, how many groups made the trip and how they settled on the new continent. That’s where the ‘little dawn’ comes in.
The remains of the girl and those of another ancient baby known as “Yełkaanenh T’eede Gaay” (twilight dawn girl), were found by Potter and his colleagues at an archaeological site in the interior of Alaska called Upward Sun River during excavations in 2013
In the current study, which includes the journal Nature this week, experts explain that the genetic analysis of the girl’s DNA shows that she belonged to a forgotten people (Former Beringians), unknown until now by science.
And, until now, there were only two recognized branches of the first Native Americans (known as North and South). But, by sequencing the genome of the dawn girl, the complete genetic profile of a human being in the New World did not coincide with his.
Using genetic analyzes and demographic models, the scientists concluded that a single founding ancestral group of Native Americans separated from East Asians about 35,000 years ago, most likely somewhere in northeastern Asia.
At some point, it is suspected that these people moved in a single massive migration to North America and about 15,000 years later, the population was divided into two groups.
One of the groups became the Ancient Beringians; the other group were the ancestors of all the other Native Americans, although it is still possible that this division was already happening before the Beringia bridge was crossed.
“This is the first time we have direct genomic evidence that all Native Americans go back to a population of origin, through a single foundational migration event, ” says Eske Willerslev, evolutionary geneticist at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.
Life would not have been easy for them with such an extreme climate, but the population as a whole, separated from those who traveled to other parts of the New World, lasted thousands of years before finally being absorbed by other Native American populations.
In light of this new discovery, it is clear that the first settlers of America had a more diverse lineage than we thought.