A large-scale genetic study of native North Americans offers new insights into the migration of a small group of Athapaskan natives from their subarctic home in northwest North America to the southwestern United States. The migration, which left no known archaeological trace, is believed to have occurred about 500 years ago.
The study, led by researchers at the University of Illinois, is detailed this month in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. It relied on a genetic analysis of the Y chromosome and so offers a window on the unique ancestral history of the male Athapaskan migrants. Previous genetic studies of this group focused on mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down exclusively from mothers to their offspring.
The new findings reinforce the hypothesis that the Athapaskan migration involved a relatively small group that nonetheless was very successful at assimilating and intermixing with native groups already living in the southwest. The newcomers were so influential that the Athapaskan language family now dominates many parts of the Southwest. Now called Apacheans, the Navajo and Apache descendants of the early migrants are dispersed throughout the central Southwest and speak languages closely related to the Chipewyan, an Athapaskan language found in the subarctic.
(Language studies also revealed that Athapaskans migrated to the northwest U.S. and settled on the coast in parts of California and Oregon.)
How the Athapaskan migrants were able to spread their language and genes so successfully is unknown. Anthropologists note that the migrants probably arrived in the Southwest at a time of stress among indigenous groups as a result of an extended drought.
The new study also revealed how pervasively European males intermixed with native groups, said principal investigator Ripan Malhi, a molecular anthropologist in the department of anthropology at Illinois.
|Contact: Diana Yates|
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign