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The baby girl from ancient Beringia

Eric S. Carlson / Ben A. Potter Artistic representation of the inhabitants of Alaska roughly 15,000 years agoEric S. Carlson / Ben A. Potter

Scientists are gaining new insight into the initial settlement of the Americas thanks to DNA extracted from the fossilized bones of a 6-week-old baby who lived in the Tanama River basin in central Alaska 11,500 years ago (Nature, January 3). According to analyses by archaeologists and geneticists at the universities of Copenhagen, Denmark, and Cambridge, UK, the baby was part of a population that probably comprised a few thousand individuals and lived in Beringia for thousands of years. Beringia is the name given to the vast area of land (now largely submerged) that connected Siberia in eastern Asia to Alaska in North America from about 30,000 to 15,000 years ago during the last ice age, when the sea level was lower than it is today. The girl’s remains were found in 2013 alongside another fossilized baby, and researchers have named their people the Ancient Beringians. This group, as well as the ancestors of all present-day Native Americans, descended from a single population in eastern Siberia that separated genetically from other Asians roughly 36,000 years ago. The Ancient Beringians then diverged genetically from this population about 20,000 years ago, but it was not previously known whether the division occurred in Asia or in the Americas. The ancestors of modern Native Americans separated from this same population a little later, approximately 16,000 years ago.