11,500-Year-Old Skeleton Reveals an Unknown Group of Ancient Migrants to the Americas

Illustration by Eric S. Carlson in collaboration with Ben A. Potter
Illustration by Eric S. Carlson in collaboration with Ben A. Potter

In 2013, deep in the forest of central Alaska's remote Tanana River Valley, archaeologists unearthed the remains of a 6-week-old baby at a Late Pleistocene archaeological site. The tiny bones yielded big surprises for researchers, who announced this week that the child's genome—the oldest complete genetic profile of a New World human—reveals the existence of a human lineage that was previously unknown to scientists. Related to yet genetically distinct from modern Native Americans, the infant offers fresh insights into how the Americas were first peopled, National Geographic reports.

Published in the journal Nature on January 3, the study analyzed the DNA of the infant, whom the local Indigenous community named Xach'itee'aanenh T'eede Gaay ("sunrise girl-child" in the local Athabascan language). Then, researchers used genetic analysis and demographic modeling to identify connections between different groups of ancient Americans. This allowed them to figure out where this newly identified population—named Ancient Beringians—fit on the timeline.

University of Alaska Fairbanks professors Ben Potter and Josh Reuther excavate at the Upward Sun River site in central Alaska.
Members of the archaeology field team watch as University of Alaska Fairbanks professors Ben Potter and Josh Reuther excavate at the Upward Sun River site.
UAF photo courtesy of Ben Potter

The study suggests that a single founding group of Native Americans separated from East Asians some 35,000 years ago. This group, in turn, ended up dividing into two distinct sub-groups 15,000 years later, consisting of both the Ancient Beringians and what would eventually become the distant ancestors of all other Native Americans. The division could have occurred either before or after humans crossed over the Bering land bridge around 15,700 years ago.

After arriving in the New World, Ancient Beringians likely remained north, while the other population spread out across the continent. Eventually, the Ancient Beringians either melded with or were replaced by the Athabascan peoples of interior Alaska. 

The study provides "the first direct evidence of the initial founding Native American population, which sheds new light on how these early populations were migrating and settling throughout North America," said Ben Potter, the University of Alaska-Fairbanks archaeologist who discovered the remains, in a news release. Potter was a lead author of the study, along with Eske Willerslev and other researchers at the Center for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen's Natural History Museum of Denmark.

[h/t National Geographic]

4000-Year-Old Egyptian Tomb Opens to the Public for the First Time

Khaled Desouki, AFP/Getty Images
Khaled Desouki, AFP/Getty Images

Sightseers traveling to Egypt have a new stop to add to their itineraries. As CNN reports, the 4000-year-old tomb of a royal vizier has opened to the public for the first time since its discovery.

Mehu was a high-ranking advisor to King Titi of the sixth dynasty sometime around 2300 BCE. He was buried in Egypt's Old Kingdom not far from modern-day Giza, home to the Great Pyramids and the Great Sphinx.

The walls of the tomb are decorated with well-preserved, brightly-colored paintings, which include everyday scenes like fishing and metalworking, as well as more fantastical images such as a crocodile marrying a turtle. Mehu's son Meren Ra and his grandson Heteb Kha are also buried there.

The site was discovered by Egyptologist Zaki Saad in 1940. By inviting members of public to explore the chambers, Egypt hopes to draw even more tourists to the region.

You can take a look inside the tomb by watching the video below.

[h/t CNN]

Fishermen Caught a 10,500-Year-Old Giant Irish Elk Skull—Antlers and All

Courtesy of Ardboe Gallery
Courtesy of Ardboe Gallery

The Irish elk (megaloceros giganteus) has been extinct in Ireland for about 10,500 years. So you can imagine how surprised two fishermen were when they pulled up their net and discovered a prehistoric elk skull—with antlers attached—as their catch of the day.

As Smithsonian reports, Raymond McElroy and Charlie Coyle were fishing in Ireland's Lough Neagh, a lake near the town of Ardboe, when they thought their net had snagged on a piece of driftwood. However, when they finally managed to hoist it out of the water, they discovered the skull with antlers measuring over six feet across.

"I thought it was the devil himself," Coyle told The Irish Times. "I was going to throw it back in. I didn't know what to do with it."

McElroy, however, recalled that a jawbone of an ancient Irish elk (possibly from the same animal discovered by the fishermen) was caught in the same area in 2014. For the time being, he's keeping the skull in his garage.

This particular elk probably stood about 6.5 feet tall. It's worth noting, though, that the name "Irish elk" is a bit of a misnomer. The animal is actually classified as a type of deer—in fact, the largest deer to ever have existed.

The "Irish" part of the name stems from the fact that fossils of the animal are often discovered in Ireland's lakes and bogs, which help preserve the bones. However, the animals once roamed throughout Europe, North Africa, and parts of Asia. It was roughly the same size as a modern-day moose, weighed about 1300 pounds, and some animals needed a clearance of 13 feet just to squeeze their antlers between the trees.

"Giant antlers aren't great in the forest," Mike Simms at the Ulster Museum tells Belfast Live. "Environmental change is what caused their extinction."

And thus, the Irish elk joined giant sloths, giant beavers, saber-toothed tigers, mastodons, and mammoths in the enormous extinct animals club, never to be seen again (or at least until the next fishing expedition).

[h/t Smithsonian]

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