One of my wifes cousins died in southeastern Siberia a while back, a 4-year-old boy with brown hair, brown eyes and a spray of freckles. His parents loved the little guy, and buried him with an ivory diadem, a bead necklace and a bird-shaped pendant.
They were a traveling bunch and his grave is about 4,350 miles away from the more familiar family home in southern Sweden. We dont even know his name. Little wonder, as he died 24,000 years ago.
Its true that if you go far enough back, everyone is related to everyone, but my wife and daughter have a more verifiable connection with this little boy than would have been possible until this era of amateur genetics research. I buy genetics testing the way some men shell out money for boats or lottery tickets.
Donna, Elizabeth and the little Siberian all have mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) lineage designated by the letter U. They and 10 percent of other European-Americans are direct descendants of the same distant grandma who lived 550 centuries ago. (mtDNA is passed only by mothers to their children of both genders.) People with U ancestry are believed to be among the first to reenter Northwest Europe as the ice sheets retreated 10,000 years ago.
But no one knew until recently that the U family also migrated into the far reaches of Siberia, to what is now a small village just north of ancient, mile-deep and mysterious Lake Baikal. People we would recognize as European were part of the ethnic mix in the heart of Asia long, long ago.
There is an even bigger surprise in the boys genes. Scientists examining the boys other DNA is a 25 percent match with that of living Native Americans, according to Nicholas Wade, writing in the New York Times. American Indians naturally have mtDNA from the lineages A,B,C, D and X but not U. But they do still retain many of the same other genes as the Siberian boy he matches Europeans and Indians, but not East Asians.
Writing in the journal Nature, Dr. Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen, concludes:
Before 24,000 years ago, the ancestors of Native Americans and the ancestors of todays East Asians split into distinct groups. The Malta child represents a population of Native American ancestors who moved into Siberia, probably from Europe or west Asia. Then, sometime after the Malta boy died, this population mixed with East Asians. The new, admixed population eventually made its way to the Americas. Exactly when and where the admixture happened is not clear, Willerslev said. But the deep roots in Europe or west Asia could help explain features of some Paleoamerican skeletons and of Native American DNA today.
This helps explain how Kennewick Man, the skeletal remains discovered along the Hanford Reach in southeastern Washington state, appears to be a European-type person living in ancient America. American Indians and Europeans are not separate races, but relatively close cousins who met and mixed during the peak of the last ice age in Siberia.
All this has been a hot topic of discussion on the robust message boards and Internet forums devoted to citizen-based study of DNA. The original posting on the Eurogenes Blog (eurogenes.blogspot.com) on Oct. 19 was up to 119 comments as of this Thursday. Passionate arguments revolve around issues of genetics that most of us would find utterly over our heads. But the depth of this passion is often surprising. It shouldnt be in some important ways, genes are a fundamental piece of who we are.
I know the idea of gene testing sounds strange and extravagant to some, but learning these clues about who we are and how we came to be is intensely interesting. I strongly encourage you to get involved. Im always happy to answer question if you have them. Feel free to write email@example.com.
Observer editor Matt Winters lives in Ilwaco with his wife and daughter.