NEW STUDY OF ANCIENT DNA REVEALS POPULATION HISTORY OF NORTHEASTERN NORTH AMERICA

In a paper published in the September 2008 issue of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Beth Allison Schultz Shook and David Glenn Smith present the results of a study of mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA, recovered from ancient human remains from a number of sites in northeastern North America. When compared with the mtDNA from contemporary populations, these data reveal important clues about the relationships between the ancient and modern groups.

Shook and Smith examine “how mtDNA patterns have changed throughout prehistory and across geographic space within the Northeast.” They studied mtDNA from two ancient populations: Late Archaic (circa 850 BC) groups from southern Ontario (including both the Glacial Kame and Red Ocher cultures) and Mississippian/Late Prehistoric (circa AD 1150) groups from both western Illinois (the Orendorf site) and southern Ontario (Great Western Park site).

Shook and Smith also included genetic data from other studies to increase their sample of ancient mtDNA. The additional sites included Norris Farms, an Oneota (Mississippian) site from Illinois, and Ohio’s Hopewell Mound Group (circa AD 200).

They compared the ancient mtDNA to the mtDNA of the following modern Native American groups: Manitoulin Island Ojibwa, Northern Ontario Ojibwa, Turtle Mountain Chippewa, Minnesota Chippewa, Wisconsin Chippewa, Cheyenne, Cheyenne/Arapaho, Sisseton/Wahpeton Sioux, and Mohawk.

Shook and Smith determined that there were close similarities between the people of the Hopewell Mound Group and the people from the Mississippian/Late Prehistoric sites of Great Western Park, Ontario, and Orendorf and Norris Farms in Illinois. This indicates relatively strong regional continuities in populations from the Hopewell through the Mississippian in this broad region. One conclusion you might draw from these data is that whatever brought about the end of the Hopewell culture, it did not involve the movement of new groups of people into the Northeast.

When Shook and Smith compared the ancient mtDNA to the mtDNA of modern groups, they found that the people of the Hopewell Mound Group, as well as the Mississippian people from the Orendorf site, were most closely related to the Cheyenne/Arapaho and the Sisseton/Wahpeton Sioux.

Shook and Smith also point out that “seven of nine Hopewell haplogroup A haplotypes,” distinctive variations of the mtDNA, seem to represent lineages “that might now be extinct.” In other words, attempts to link particular ancient groups with modern groups will be complicated by the fact that some ancient groups may have no living descendants.

Shook and Smith conclude with the observation that their results suggest that “some ancestors of present day Native Americans in northeastern North America have been in that region for at least 3,000 years.” Nevertheless, they also observe that “the genetic structure of the Northeast has changed significantly” over time. One reason for this is that ancient as well as modern people often traveled through the region for purposes of trade and pilgrimage and, in the process, they may have met and married folks from far-off places resulting in the transfer of genes from one group to another.

Another way in which the genetic structure of the region changed is through the loss of genetic variability through extinction. The arrival of Europeans in the Northeast introduced foreign diseases that killed many thousands of Native Americans. Entire villages and even tribes may have been lost in the deadly wake of the Four Horsemen of the Post-Columbian apocalypse.

Shook and Smith caution that their study is limited by small sample sizes and the use of only one genetic marker. Their tantalizing results underscore the “need for additional genetic analysis of prehistoric populations in the Northeast to help differentiate between these varied causes and to further illuminate the pattern of genetic change in the Northeast.”

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The article by Shook and Smith is entitled, “Using Ancient mtDNA to reconstruct the population history of northeastern North America.” It appears in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology Volume 137, pages 14-29.

If you’d like more information about the Late Archaic cultures, the Hopewell culture, Hopewell Mound Group, the Late Prehistoric Period, and other aspects of ancient Ohio, then check out Ohio History Central, an online encyclopedia that includes information about Ohio’s natural history, prehistory, and history: http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/time_period.php?rec=1

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