An unknown Siberian community abruptly disappeared, new study finds

The hunter gatherers were a mixture between two distinct groups that lived in Siberia during the last Ice Age.
Nergis Firtina
Photo of the grave
Photo of the grave

Nadezhda F. Stepanova 

Early on in human history, it is commonly documented that humans moved from North Asia to North America over the Bering Strait. Last week, a study claimed that people might have crossed Beringia earlier than we thought due to climate change.

According to a new study published in Current Biology yesterday (Jan .12), genomes from ten individuals with ages up to 7,500 years old demonstrate gene flow from people migrating from North America to North Asia (i.e in the opposite direction).

The research team also looked at the remains of a prehistoric shaman who lived in western Siberia some 6,500 years ago. According to the current DNA analysis, this location is more than 900 miles (1,500 kilometers) west of the group with which he shared genetic links.

A previously unknown population 

Their investigation identifies a hitherto unidentified early Holocene Siberian population that resided in the Neolithic Altai-Sayan region close to the border of Russia, China, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan. They were descendants from both Paleo-Siberian and Ancient North Eurasian (ANE) people, according to DNA research.

An unknown Siberian community abruptly disappeared, new study finds
A skull

“We describe a previously unknown hunter-gatherer population in the Altai as early as 7,500 years old, which is a mixture between two distinct groups that lived in Siberia during the last Ice Age,” says Cosimo Posth at the University of Tübingen, Germany, and senior author of the study.

“The Altai hunter-gatherer group contributed to many contemporaneous and subsequent populations across North Asia, showing how great the mobility of those foraging communities was," he adds.

The homeland of Denisovans

As stated in the release, Posth also suggested that the Denisovans were also found here. Additionally, this area has played a significant role in human history as a crossroads for migrations of people throughout millennia between northern Siberia, Central Asia, and East Asia.

The newly discovered gene pool might be the best source for the presumed ANE-related population that gave rise to Bronze Age populations from North and Inner Asia. This includes the Lake Baikal hunter-gatherers, the pastoralists connected to Okunevo, and the mummies from the Tarim Basin, researchers say.

“The finding that surprised me the most is from an individual dated to a similar period as the other Altai hunter-gatherers but with a completely different genetic profile, showing genetic affinities to populations located in the Russian Far East,” says Ke Wang at Fudan University, China, and lead author of the study.

“Interestingly, the Nizhnetytkesken individual was found in a cave containing rich burial goods with a religious costume and objects interpreted as possible representation of shamanism.”

“It is not clear if the Nizhnetytkesken individual came from far away or the population from which he derived was located close by,” she says. “However, his grave goods appear different than other local archeological contexts implying mobility of both culturally and genetically diverse individuals into the Altai region.”

Study abstract:

The peopling history of North Asia remains largely unexplored due to the limited number of ancient genomes analyzed from this region. Here, we report genome-wide data of ten individuals dated to as early as 7,500 years before present from three regions in North Asia, namely Altai-Sayan, Russian Far East, and the Kamchatka Peninsula. Our analysis reveals a previously undescribed Middle Holocene Siberian gene pool in Neolithic Altai-Sayan hunter-gatherers as a genetic mixture between paleo-Siberian and ancient North Eurasian (ANE) ancestries. This distinctive gene pool represents an optimal source for the inferred ANE-related population that contributed to Bronze Age groups from North and Inner Asia, such as Lake Baikal hunter-gatherers, Okunevo-associated pastoralists, and possibly Tarim Basin populations. We find the presence of ancient Northeast Asian (ANA) ancestry—initially described in Neolithic groups from the Russian Far East—in another Neolithic Altai-Sayan individual associated with different cultural features, revealing the spread of ANA ancestry ∼1,500 km further to the west than previously observed. In the Russian Far East, we identify 7,000-year-old individuals that carry Jomon-associated ancestry indicating genetic links with hunter-gatherers in the Japanese archipelago. We also report multiple phases of Native American-related gene flow into northeastern Asia over the past 5,000 years, reaching the Kamchatka Peninsula and central Siberia. Our findings highlight largely interconnected population dynamics throughout North Asia from the Early Holocene onward.