Siberian Genetics, Native Americans, and the Altai Connection

The GeoCurrents series on Siberia concludes by looking first to the future and then into the distant past: the preceding post examined the possible consequences of global warming on the region, while the present one turns to much earlier times, exploring the position of Siberia in human prehistory and especially its crucial role in the peopling of the Americas.

Mainstream anthropological thought has long assumed that the first settlers of North and South America derived from Siberia, moving over the exposed land-bridge of “Beringia” during the last glacial episode and then spreading south once the continental glaciers began to recede. Alternative theories, however, have proposed additional migration streams originating from Europe or passing from eastern Asia through the north Pacific by watercraft. Genetic studies, however, strongly support the Siberian hypothesis. Y-chromosome DNA analysis, for example, reveals that a substantial majority of Native American men belong to the otherwise fairly rare haplogroup Q, which also happens to be common in Siberia, especially among some of the smaller indigenous groups.  Haplogroup Q reaches an astoundingly high 95 percent frequency among the Ket, but this could represent genetic drift, as the Ket population is very small (around 1,500).

The Y-DNA Haplogroup R1 is the second most important haplogroup among the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Its frequency is highest in the Americas among the Algonquian peoples of the northeastern United States and eastern Canada. Although rare in eastern Siberia, R1 is widespread among certain south-central Siberian groups. Whether haplogroup R1 among certain Native American groups came from south-central Siberia or is a result of recent European admixture remains uncertain.

The third major Y-DNA haplogroup found among Native Americans is haplogroup C, which is also relatively widespread in Siberia. Haplogroup C is even more common in the Pacific and among indigenous Australians; some scholars associate haplogroup C with the first out-of-Africa migration that took a coastal route along Southern Asia and into Southeast Asia and Australia some 50,000 years ago. However, American Indians (especially some Na-Dené-, Algonquian-, or Siouan-speaking populations), Siberians, and Central Asians share the more restricted C3 sub-haplogroup, while many Pacific groups have the C2 sub-haplogroup and Australians Aborigines the C4 sub-haplogroup.

Several relatively recent genetic studies seek to clarify the relationship between the indigenous peoples of the Americas and those of Siberia. A 2007 report, for example, located an American “north-to-south gradient of decreasing similarity to Siberians”: the closer the location of a given Amerindian group to Siberia, in other worlds, the closer the genetic connection. As specified by the authors, “Genetic similarity to Siberia is greatest for the Chipewyan population from northern Canada and for the more southerly Cree and Ojibwa populations. Detectable Siberian similarity is visible to a greater extent in Mesoamerican and Andean populations than in the populations from eastern South America.” The fact that western South American Indian populations have closer genetic affinities to Siberians than those of eastern South America is offered as evidence that the original human migration to South America occurred along the Pacific Coast. The greater linguistic diversity along the Pacific Coast further supports the theory that the initial peopling of the Americas proceeded north to south along a Pacific coastal route.

The movement down the Pacific Coast could have been relatively rapid. Another 2007 study, for example, found evidence that the ancestors of the Native Americans lived for many thousands of years in relative isolation in Beringia, during which time they experienced a number of genetic changes. Some of these people evidently migrated back into Siberia, where their genetic signatures can be seen today, especially among the Evenks and Selkups. The authors go on to argue that “after the Beringian standstill, the initial North to South migration [in the Americas] was likely a swift pioneering process, not a gradual diffusion, … [and] was followed by long-term isolation of local populations.” This long-term isolation further contributed to linguistic diversification in the Americas.

The initial peopling of the Americas from this ancestral Beringian population appears to have been only the first of three “Siberian” migrations to the Western Hemisphere. Linguistic and other lines of evidence have long suggested that the Na-Dené people (those who speak Athabascan and related languages) came in a second wave, perhaps around 8,000 BCE. Intriguingly, the Na-Dené languages have been linked to the Ket language of central Siberia by linguist Edward Vajda. This Dené-Yeniseian hypothesis remains controversial, although it has received stronger support than the wildly speculative “Dené–Caucasian” theory, proposed by Russian scholar Sergei Starostin, which posits a macro-family encompassing “the Sino-Tibetan, North Caucasian, Na-Dené, and Yeniseian [Ket] language families and the Basque and Burushaski languages.” Most linguist continue to treat Ket, Basque, and Burushaski as isolates; Sino-Tibetan and Na-Dené as separate language families; and North Caucasian as two (or even three) separate language families. Genetically, the Na-Dené show some particularities that also indicate that their “migration occurred from the Russian Far East after the initial Paleo-Indian colonization.” A third migration stream from Siberia to the Americas, that of the ancestors of the “Eskimo-Aleut” peoples, seems to date back to around 4,000 BCE, according to both linguistic and genetic evidence.

As mentioned above, some Y-DNA markers show a closer connection between Native Americans and the indigenous inhabitants of south-central Siberian than those of the northern or eastern parts of the region. The same is true for certain mitochondrial DNA markers, which show descent along the maternal line. A major study published earlier this year specifically indicates strong genetic linkages between American Indians and the indigenous inhabitants of the southern Altai Mountains, a rugged area situated near the intersection of southern Siberia, western Mongolia, and eastern Kazakhstan. As the authors argue, “The Altai region of southern Siberia has played a critical role in the peopling of northern Asia as an entry point into Siberia and a possible homeland for ancestral Native Americans.”

The genetic linkage between Native Americans and the peoples of the Altai Mountains may seem surprising, as the Altai Range is located far from Beringia. But as has been explored in previous GeoCurrents posts, mountains often act as refuges, places where old patterns, cultural and genetic, are able to persist. In more open landscapes, mass movements of people are more easily able to introduce new elements and rearrange preexisting configurations. Relatively isolated mountain valleys, such as those of the Altai, were often largely bypassed by such movements.

Yet such isolation was rarely if ever absolute. Turkic languages, for example, eventually spread through the Altai Range, displacing languages of other families. Some scholars have suggested that the Turkic linguistic family itself originated in the Altai region, and the linkage of the region to the putative language family* that includes Turkic, Mongolian, and Tungusic is reflected in its very name: Altaic. The Altai Mountains may even have played a role in the history of the Indo-European language family. In the Bronze Age (circa 1500 BCE), horse-riding nomads originating near the Altai seem to have spread their burial sites over a huge region extending from Finland to Mongolia. Although this so-called Seima-Turbino Phenomenon is still widely regarded as a cultural enigma, some scholars have argued that its carriers were Indo-European speakers. A 2009 Human Genetics article further contends that in “the Bronze and Iron Ages, south Siberia was a region of overwhelmingly predominate European settlement,” inhabited by “blue (or green-) eyed, fair-skinned, and light-haired people.” Perhaps that was the case across much of the lowland belt of south-central Siberia, but a different situation would probably have obtained in the hidden valleys of the Altai Mountains.

*As discussed in a previous GeoCurrents post, “Altaic” is probably not a genuine language family derived from descent from a common ancestral tongue.


New Evidence on the Settlement of Madagascar

A new study of the genetic background of the people of Madagascar sheds light on the settlement of the island. It has long been known that the initial movement of people to Madagascar was relatively recent (1,000 to 1,500 years ago), and that it originated not from the African mainland but rather from the islands of what is now Indonesia. The new study, carried out by a team led by Murray Cox of New Zealand’s Massey University, examined mitrochondrial DNA, providing firm data on maternal lineages. The findings suggest that the first settlement of the island occurred around 830 CE, and involved a small group of women, numbering around thirty individuals. The researchers found no indication of women continuing to move from Insular Southeast Asia to Madagascar after the initial settlement event. Subsequently, however, another migration stream brought women (and men) from Africa to the island.

Many mysteries still surround the peopling of Madagascar. Cox’s dating suggests that the initial settlement occurred during the heyday of the powerful Srivijaya Empire, which controlled the Strait of Malacca and maintained a powerful fleet. But cultural evidence of Srivijaya’s role in the settlement process is lacking. The Empire was Buddhist, with Hindu elements, but religious practices of Indian origin were not established on Madagascar. The indigenous Malagasy language of Madagascar, moreover, is most closely related to the Barito languages of Borneo, not the Malay language spoken in Srivijaya.

Some have suggested that the first settlers could have been members of a tribal population from Borneo sent by Srivijaya, or perhaps by a Malay mercantile network, to establish a local base for food production that could aid their trading activities in the area. Others think that the settlement could have been entirely accidently, resulting from a ship or small fleet blown off-course. It is unlikely that mercantile activities would have directly led to the settlement of the Madagascar. Certainly traders from what is now Indonesia were active at the time in the waters of the western Indian Ocean, but it is thought that few women were involved in the process.




Mapping Language and Race in the Finnic World

In skimming through old atlases, one might be surprised to find Finns racially classified as yellow-skinned Mongolians. Yet until fairly recently, that was the norm. Consider the 1962 map posted above, “Classification of Mankind By Color of Skin,” from the popular Bartholomew’s Advanced Atlas of Modern Geography. Here both Finns and Estonians are “xanthodermic Asiatics.” “(Xanthoderma,” medical dictionaries tell us, refers to “skin that has a yellow coloration, as in jaundice.”) Bizarre as it may be, the idea that Finns are racially linked to East Asians lives on; if in doubt, try an internet search of “Finns Mongols.”

The notion that Finns and other Finno-Ugric-speaking peoples of Europe are of Mongolian stock is hard to take seriously. While biological race is itself a questionable concept, a number of physical traits distinguish East Asians (the “Mongolians” of racial classification): epicanthic eyelid folds; dark, straight, thick hair; and a number of bone and teeth features. (Note that yellow skin is nowhere on this list.) These attributes are as rare in Finland as they are in other European countries. If anything, Finns may be the blondest, most blue-eyed people in the world, as the second set of maps shows. The Eastern Finnic peoples are not quite as light as the western ones, falling closer to the European norm. Red hair, however, is oddly common among the Urdmuts of the central Volga. Udmurtia is proud of this characteristic, running an annual “red festival” that celebrates rufous coloring not only in people but also in “cats, dogs, hamsters, [and] squirrels…”

Why then have the Finno-Ugric peoples, Hungarians as well as Finns and Estonians, so often been classified as “Mongolian”? The credit – or discredit – goes to a German scholar named Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752 -1840). Known as the “father of physical anthropology,” Blumenbach is famed for coining the term “Caucasian race.” Blumenbach thought that cranium shape was the key to human differentiation, but his collection of skulls was limited. He purportedly based his claims on the fact that “two Saami (Lapp) skulls and one Finnish skull resembled one Mongol skull.” Evidently, he never examined any livings Finns. Blumenbach’s scientific stature was so elevated that his ideas carried the day, nonsensical though they were.

Linguistic analysis seemed to bolster the idea that Finno-Ugric peoples belonged in the “Mongolian” category. Scholars once widely assumed that peoples who spoke related languages belonged to the same race, sharing descent from a common ancestral population. From the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, most linguists grouped “Uralic” Finno-Ugric languages with Altaic languages, forming a Ural-Altaic macro-family that linked Finnish to Mongolian and Manchu. If their languages were related, the reasoning went, the Finns and Mongols had to be sibling peoples. This Ural-Altaic hypothesis has long since been abandoned, but the Uralic component is still widely accepted, and it still links Finns to peoples who look Asian. Uralic’s highest order split separates Finno-Ugric from Samoyedic, and the Samoyeds – Nenets, Selkups, and others – have dark eyes, straight black hair, and epicanthic eyelid folds. The eastern Ugric-speakers of western Siberia, the Khanty and the Mansi, appear Eurasian, with intermediate features and mixed genetic markers as well.

But we now know that linguistic groups and genetic groups need not have any connection. Languages can spread into new populations even when genes do not, just as migration can bring wholesale genetic changes without linguistic transformations. As a result, large language families often encompass peoples who look very different and have markedly distinct genetic heritages. The Afroasiatic macro-family, for example, encompasses blonde Berbers in North Africa and dark-skinned Hausa in northern Nigeria, and even the Berber family includes the generally dark-skinned Tuareg as well as the generally light-skinned Kabyle. The fact that some Uralic speakers look European while others look East Asian thus tells us nothing about the racial attributes of the Finns—nor of the original speakers of Uralic languages.

As it turns out, the Finns are genetically distinctive, forming an “outlier” European population, as the New York Times “Genetic Map” posted above indicates. Why this should be the case is a matter of some controversy. Some attribute it to a “founder effect,” arising from the fact that the “Finnish population was at one time very small and then expanded, bearing the atypical genetics of its few founders.” Others think that the Finns are simply “more European” than others, having absorbed fewer genes from outsiders. According to this line of reasoning, the Finns most closely resemble the Paleolithic European Cro-Magnons.

Several specific genetic markers also help differentiate the Finnish population. As Asya Pereltsvaig noted in the Geocurrents comments section on Monday, the Y-chromosome DNA haplogroup N is extremely common in Finland, found in 60 percent of the country’s male population, yet is rare in most of the rest of Europe. As Y-DNA passes only in the paternal lineage, a majority of Finnish men must be descended from a single man with a particular mutation on his Y-chromosome who probably lived some 12-14,000 years ago. As it happens, haplogroup N has a close association with peoples speaking Uralic languages. It is thought to have originated in Central Asia, and then spread in a counter-clockwise route through central Siberia and into northern Europe. Haplogroup N is also prevalent in a few areas outside of the Uralic-speaking zone, reaching especially high concentrations (75 percent) among the Turkic-speaking Sakha (Yakut) of central-northern Siberia. But even if most Finns and Sakhas can trace their male lineages back to a single great-great-great…grandfather, that does not mean that they are otherwise genetically similar; when one goes back 12,000 years, the number of one’s ancestors becomes staggeringly large.

Genetic studies also shed light on the history of interactions among Slavic and Finno-Ugric peoples in northern European Russia. According to a 2005 paper by Boris Malyarchuk and others, published in Human Biology 76(6), “… only the most western Russian populations appear to be descendants of the Slavs, whereas northern and eastern Russian populations appear to be the result of an admixture between Slavic tribes and pre-Slavonic populations” (p. 897). For further explorations of the linguistic, genetic, and gender history of this region, see the recent postings on Languages of the World.