Eske Willerslev rewrites American immigration history with groundbreaking discovery in Alaska

12. January 2018

An international research team led by Eske Willerslev recently made a discovery that affects world history as we know it. The findings were reported in an article in Nature titled: Terminal Pleistocene Alaskan genome reveals first founding population of Native Americans. Willerslev is the head of the Center for Geogenetics and a professor at the University of Copenhagen.

Read Videnskab.dk’s article about the publication here (Danish)

Archeologists have excavated 11,500-year-old bones from an infant whose genetic material can provide revolutionary knowledge about the tribal population that immigrated to America. The colonization of America is one of the biggest events in world history, and many people worldwide are interested in this immigration story.

“It is the latest immigration history to continents that we have, and if we do not understand how America became populated, we have a very limited possibility of understanding what really happened in the rest of the world,” said Willerslev.

Eske Willerslev (picture from Politiken.dk)

By comparing the infant’s genome with genomes from living humans and fossil genomes, the researchers were able to establish that the genome is closer to that of American Indians and less close to that of Asians and Europeans. Furthermore, the genome can offer insight into how Indians currently alive are related to the common tribal population of the past. Having this insight, the researchers can estimate when the tribal population chronologically occurred.

The main elements of the findings are that the tribal population came from Asians who walked onto the land between Siberia and Alaska (Beringia) 36,000 years ago. They lived there for many decades until one group separated from the others and walked south 20,000 years ago. This group’s descendants became today’s American Indians. Thus, an infant who died in Alaska 11,500 years ago helped establish that America was, in fact, populated via the Bering land bridge.