DNA analysis adds twists to ancient story of a Native American group

By Carol Clark | eScienceCommons | April 30, 2018

Story image

"I want to help Native American tribes to reclaim knowledge of their very ancient evolutionary histories — histories that have been largely wiped away because of colonialism," says Emory geneticist John Lindo. Photo by Kay Hinton, Emory Photo/Video

The ancient genomes of the Tsimshian indigenous people left tell-tale markers on the trail of their past, revealing that at least 6,000 years ago their population size was on a slow but steady decline.

The American Journal of Human Genetics published the findings, which draw from the first population-level nuclear DNA analysis of a Native American group from ancient to modern times.

“The finding contradicts a popular notion,” says John Lindo, a geneticist in Emory University’s Department of Anthropology and first author on the paper. “There is this idea that after Native Americans came in through the Bering Strait that they were all expanding in population size until Europeans showed up. At least for this one population, we’ve shown that was not the case.”

A boon in next-generation DNA sequencing technology has opened the possibility to explore the evolutionary history of different populations. “Ancient nuclear DNA analysis is a relatively new field,” Lindo says. “Not until recently have we had methods to sequence an entire genome quickly and inexpensively.”

Nuclear DNA provides information on an individual’s lineages going back hundreds of thousands of years. Lindo is one of the few geneticists looking at ancient whole genomes of Native Americans. He is especially interested in understanding how the genomes of their different populations evolved over time.

“Their evolutionary histories are radically different,” Lindo says. “Over thousands of years, various Native American populations have adapted to living in every ecology throughout North and South America, from the Arctic to the Amazon. That’s about as an extreme as you can get for differences in environments.”

View Full Story in eScienceCommons »