Ancestors of the New World Had Many Origins
Copyright © Canada Inc. Discovery Channel Canada 18 Feb 2000

Extensive analysis of physical features from skulls of the Old and New worlds (Asia and North/Meso/South America respectively), called craniofacial measurements, revealed some interesting findings for anthropologists who have been puzzled by the question - where do the Native Americans originate from?

Dr. C. Loring Brace, a professor of Anthropolgy at the University of Michigan who presented his findings this week at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington D.C., has been gazing at hundreds of skulls from across North, Meso and South America as well as their alleged ancestors from across the Pacific in Japan, Russia, China and Oceania to name a few.

Instead of one general origin, Brace's analyses class the people of the New World into several main categories. These can essentially be described as: indirectly Asian, Jomon (the prehistoric people of Japan) and Athabascan (from China).

Dr. Brace

 Dr. C. Loring Brace

Brace and his colleagues based these statements on two dozen different kinds and specific measurements of the skulls. Over 1500 skulls later, they took a look at their findings. It appeared to Brace and his colleagues that there were four fundamental branches of people from the Asian region that contributed independently to the people who started to populate the New World, some 20,000 years ago.

Brace took the measurements from the skulls and preformed a variety of different statistical analyses, and ended up with an interesting schematic representation of the tree-like relationship between the people of the Old World, compared to the people of the New World. This schematic representation is called a dendogram. In the dendogram, the closer the branches are to each other the likelier they are to be linked.

Their analysis classed the people of the New World into several main categories. These can essentially be described as: indirectly Asian, Jomon (the prehistoric people of Japan) and Athabascan (from China).


Profile of aged Native American male - probably Omaha or Chipewa

Members of the Chipewa and Omaha tribes are linked with the Jomon, the people of early Japan. Image courtesy of the Bulletin of American Ethnology.

A picture of a Native American Male - ancestry uncertain, possibly Athapaskan
Another member of a people related to the Jomon, and likely to take advantage of the extensive water systems of the Americas.

 Those that didn't appear to be linked to a distinct Asian group included samples of skulls from Peru, Mexico and southern United States. It is hypothesized that they could have been related from much further back in time to Asian ancestors. "This could be because they have been separated from their Asian sources for the longest period of time (of all of the groups)," said Brace in a press release. "We hope that new samples from Novosibirsk, Moscow, and Saint Petersburg, which we've recently been given permission to measure, will illuminate their origins."

The Jomon, the ancient people of Japan are thought to be related to people from Northern U.S., Canada, Florida, Virginia and Argentina, and believed to have come over from there 12,000 years ago. Brace has sub-divided these people into two varieties - but both tended to exploit water-based environments for food and habitation. First, there were those people who tended to stay along the coastal region of both North and South America. These people used the coastal waterway as a means to slowly inhabit the marine systems further along the West Coast as well as take advantage of the rich marine resources for food. Second, were the people who took to terrestrial regions but nonetheless water-dependent environments (like the extensive area across the northern U.S. and central and eastern Canada from the melting glaciers). These people were the fresh-water inhabitants and used the extensive network for lakes and river systems.

The Manchus of northeastern China and the Chukchi of northeast Siberia appear most similar in their craniofacial patterns to the people that inhabited the northern edge of North America, or the Inuit and Aleuts (of the Bering strait). Intent on using the resources of the marine environment, they moved to where there was likely less competition - the chilly regions of the North.

Last, Brace offers a category based on the similarities between the Athabascan people of the plains and almost strictly terrestrial environments of the Yukon drainage as far south as Arizona and northern Mexico, with people from the Chinese Neolithic and Micronesia. They appeared as though they were able to use the resources that were more sparsely used by the other peoples and developed sophisticated plant-food processing techniques based on their experience from their predecessors in Asia.

Brace's results, in addition to more recent genetic studies, all generally fit the same picture as far as explaining why it is likely that the New World was inhabited by different people and not just the generic 'Asia', or Mongolids. Brace suggest why the different peoples move into relatively specific types of areas depending on their ability to adapt, and whether other people were already there. From competition for space, and of course the resources themselves, the people coming from Asia would have likely been bound to certain options and limitations.

Between the cranofacial measurements that Brace and his colleague undertook, to ongoing genetic analysis, and a fundamental understanding of natural resource use, anthropologists appear to be getting closer to finding out where the people of the Western hemisphere really came from.

Complex Old World Origins Of First Americans Revealed In Analysis Of Prehistoric And Modern Skulls

ANN ARBOR --- Analyzing craniofacial measurements of old and new skulls from around the world, University of Michigan anthropologists have confirmed the complex origins of Native Americans that have been suggested by recent archeological and genetic studies.

In a seminar Friday (18 February 2000) on the initial peopling of the New World, held at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C., U-M anthropology Prof. C. Loring Brace presented a craniofacial perspective on the origins of today's American Indians. Using morphometric comparisons of thousands of ancient and modern skulls, collected over a period of 20 years and containing new data from Mongolia that became accessible just last summer, Brace showed how the native inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere fit into several different groups based on craniofacial patterns.

For the analysis, Brace and colleagues compared a battery of two dozen measurements made on each skull to generate a "dendrogram," a tree-like figure in which the distance between the twigs reflects the closeness or distance between any given group and the others.

Their studies show that descendants of the first humans to enter the New World, including natives of Mexico, Peru, and the southern United States, have no obvious ties to any Asian groups. "This could be because they have been separated from their Asian sources for the longest period of time," says Brace. "We hope that new samples from Novosibirsk, Moscow, and Saint Petersburg, which we've recently been given permission to measure, will illuminate their origins."

A second group---including the Blackfoot, Iroquois, and other tribes from Minnesota, Michigan, Ontario, and Massachusetts---was descended from the Jomon, the prehistoric people of Japan. The Inuit appear to be a later branch from that same Jomon trunk. Tribal groups who lived down the eastern seaboard into Florida share this origin, according to Brace.

Another group, originating in China and including the Athabascan-speaking people from the Yukon drainage of Alaska and northwest Canada, spread as far south as Arizona and northern Mexico. "Their craniofacial configuration allies them more closely to the living Chinese than to any other population in either hemisphere," Brace notes.

To refine the linkages and identify the ultimate origins of these peoples, Brace emphasizes that additional analyses need to be performed, using new samples located in institutions in the former Soviet Union, from sites in Mongolia, Siberia, and Eurasia. These samples represent the remaining large block of the world not currently covered in any detail by the U-M Museum of Anthropology craniofacial database.

But he also makes it clear that one firm conclusion has already emerged. "The 'native' inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere are not all minor variants of the same people," he says.

Editor's Note: The original news release can be found at Three 300 dpi, JPG photos are available for electronic download at

American Neanderthal?
Unearthed Native American Could Help Solve Mystery
Copyright 18 Feb 2000 Reuters

The baffling 9,300-year-old Kennewick Man, whose skeleton was unearthed in 1996 in Washington state, looks so "European" because he had Neanderthal roots, a scientist said today. The National Park Service said earlier this month it would allow a genetic analysis of the skeleton, which some Native American groups claim as an ancestor and want buried. It has intrigued researchers because the features seem to suggest a more Caucasian than Asian origin. Others say he looks like an Ainu - the aboriginal people of Japan who are often said to be physically closer to Europeans than Japanese.

Loring Brace, a specialist in bone measurements at the University of Michigan, says he has a simple explanation for this - both Kennewick Man and the Ainu, along with the people of Europe, descended from Neanderthals. "I have long maintained that Neanderthals are obviously the ancestors of living Europeans," Brace told a news conference held at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

A Controversial Theory
"To produce a modern European out of a Neanderthal, all you have to do is reduce the robustness," Brace said. Scale down the heavy teeth, jaws and brow of the Neanderthal and you have a European, he said. It is a controversial theory because most scientists believe that Neanderthals were an evolutionary dead-end, people who lived side-by-side with the Cro-Magnons who were the earliest Homo sapiens but who did not interbreed with them.

But Loring said his measurements that compare the skulls of people all over the world suggest a resemblance among peoples living in Europe, along the coastlines of Asia and into ancient North America. He also found two distinct groups among the Native Americans. "It is clear there are two major groups and they are not closely related to each other at all," Brace said. One group physically more resembles East Asians, especially modern Chinese, while the second looks a lot like the Ainu. "Some of the Plains Indians don't look Native American at all," Brace said. He thinks they may have come from the same lineage as Kennewick Man did. Brace has not been allowed to examine the Kennewick remains, but thinks any measurements he could make would support his theories.

Studies May Back Up Theory
Some recent evidence tends to support Brace. In October an international team of scientists tested Neanderthal bones found in Croatia in the 1970s and found they may be just 28,000 years old, which means they would have lived side-by-side with modern humans for several thousand years.

Erik Trinkaus, an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, led that study and another one that a few months earlier suggested that the 24,500-year-old bones of a child found in Portugal showed characteristics of both Neanderthals and of modern humans. Trinkaus said he believed this suggested humans and Neanderthals interbred, but Brace said it just as easily could have been an "intermediate" form of human evolving from Neanderthal into modern Homo sapiens sapiens.

Although just a few years ago everyone agreed no humans lived in the New World until about 11,000 years ago, and that everyone trekked together over the Bering Strait into Alaska, more and more evidence suggests that people started coming over in successive waves as long as 30,000 years ago. David Meltzer, an anthropologist at Southern Methodist University, noted that huge ice sheets would have blocked any passage from the Bering Strait down through Canada until 11,500 years ago. A settlement in Monte Verde, Chile has been dated to 12,500 years ago, which suggests people must have come either a different way, or long before the ice sheets formed.

Theodore Schurr of the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical research in San Antonio, Texas did genetic studies that found four separate lineages in the Americas, and using a "molecular clock" that tracks the rate of mutations in DNA, dates some of them back as far as 25,000 or 30,000 years ago. Some seem to originate in southeastern Siberia, while one seems to have links with a relatively rare lineage found in a few modern Europeans.

A Common Root
Johanna Nichols of the University of California-Berkeley, who compared the structures of Native American languages to languages found elsewhere in the world, said some of the similarities when dated using a kind of linguistic clock, could date back to a common ancestral language 30,000 years ago.

One thing is clear, Meltzer said "when people did reach what is now the continental United States they spread fast, which meant they had to be astonishingly resourceful. In the space of 500 years they completely covered the continent," he said. "These folk had no neighbors. And most modern hunter-gatherers depend heavily on their neighbors for information about the landscape. The early colonists of the Americas had no one to ask where to find water, food or herbs to cure their ills. And they had few sources of fresh genes. "You can only marry your sister so many times," Meltzer said.


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Revised December 2006 by CSmith