31,000-year-old milk teeth reveal unknown ancient people from Siberia

12. June 2019

The discovery of 31,000-year-old milk teeth from two children found in northeastern Siberia reveal an unknown population that lived in the area long before previously believed. The ancient milk teeth were analyzed and described, together with 34 other genomes found in the area, in a large international study, recently published in Nature and led by researchers from the DNRF’s Center for GeoGenetics. The discovery may be an important piece of the puzzle regarding the mysterious kinship between Native Americans and the Siberian people.

The image shows the two ancient milk teeth that were found in the Yana-camp. Photo: Vladimir Pitulko.
The image shows the two ancient milk teeth that were found in the Yana-camp. Photo: Vladimir Pitulko.

The discovery of two ancient milk teeth from two boys who lived in the area around the archeological site called Yana in Siberia has led to the revelation of a previously unknown group of people called the Yana people. The teeth turned out to be 31,000 years old, which means that the area was populated long before previously believed. The discovery was analyzed and described in a large international study led by Associate Professor Martin Sikora, Associate Professor Morten Allentoft, and head of center Eske Willerslev from the DNRF’s Center for GeoGenetics, together with Vladimir Pitulko, a senior researcher from Russia, and Ph.D. student Vitor Soura from Portugal.

“It is a discovery that changes human history. To everyone’s big surprise, it turns out that these Yana people, which we did not know about before, are ancestors neither to Siberians from today nor to Native Americans,” said Professor Willerslev, who is the senior author behind the study. He added:

“The Yana people represent a very old group of people that evolved out of the human tree approximately 38,000 years ago, which is almost simultaneous with the divide between Europeans and Asians.”

Milk teeth protected by the Siberian cold
The two milk teeth were found by Pitulko, from the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg. He sent the teeth to researchers at the Center for GeoGenetics, where they were analyzed with the help of genome sequencing. Even though both teeth were missing the tooth root from which researchers normally extract DNA, the researchers were able to extract enough DNA to reconstruct the entire genome from both boys who had lost the teeth. The DNA-material in both teeth was protected by the Siberian permafrost from natural deterioration.

“Normally, DNA is extracted from the tooth root, but these milk teeth were cracked so we only had the crown. We weren’t certain if we would be able to extract any DNA, but we succeeded because of the fantastic preservation in the Siberian cold,” said Willerslev.

The discovery of the two ancient milk teeth from the Siberian boys shed light on hitherto unsolved aspects of the kinship between living Native Americans and populations in northern Siberia. Despite the fact that the two population groups are genetically very similar – and that both share genetic imprints from Europe and Asia – they do not have any direct line of ancestors in common.

“Therefore, one can conclude that at that time, there must have been another group of people who it has not yet been possible to determine and the milk teeth are that piece of the puzzle. That is very satisfying,” said Willerslev.

In the new study, the researchers have analyzed the ancient milk teeth together with 34 other discoveries from the Siberian area. The age of the findings expands widely, with the milk teeth’s 31,000 years as the oldest, whereas the youngest findings are “only” 600 years old.

Read the scientific article in Nature here

Read more about the study at the University of Cambridge here