If you’re a fan of any of the forensic TV programs that are popular now — such as Bones, Dexter, Fringe, or one of the several CSI series — you can’t help but be familiar with the many ways DNA testing may be put to use: to gather evidence at crime scenes, determine family relationships, or prove the recent whereabouts of a missing person, among others. Although the science behind such tests is not quite so cut-and-dry and unequivocal as these TV programs would have you believe, there’s no doubt that the idea of “DNA testing” is now part of our daily lexicon and psyches.
It’s not surprising, then, when we hear that archeologists are subjecting ancient mummies to DNA scans to determine family histories or disease susceptibility, or when it’s reported that paleontologists are taking genetic samples from the bones of long-dead dinosaurs. But here’s a new twist that is astounding: DNA evidence is now turning up far more adventurous spirits from the past than we ever dreamed possible.
Early explorations: not just for men only
A case in point is the recent announcement from Icelandic and Spanish scientists that they have found eighty living Icelanders who possess a genetic variation similar to one found mostly in Native Americans. The genetic variation is estimated to have entered Icelandic bloodlines around AD 1000. Since the type of DNA in question is passed only from mother to child, the researchers postulate that nearly five hundred years before Columbus set sail for the New World, a Native American woman may have voyaged to Europe with the Vikings. Shortly after that, it is believed, the first Viking-Native American child was born.
Could the past be full of adventurers — men and women — who we have yet to discover? Are the journeys of Magellan, Coronado, and Ponce de León that we’ve read about in elementary school just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak?
Revising the human migration story
Most of us have been taught early on in school that the first people into North America walked in from Asia by crossing a land bridge that connected the two continents during the last Ice Age, about twelve thousand years ago.
Starting in the 1980s, genetic researchers began collecting samples of DNA from Native Americans. A decade later, with rapid technological progress, any research which involved DNA testing was put into hyperspeed. While early results showed a clear genetic link between Native Americans and native peoples in Siberian Asia — thus confirming the generally accepted theory of ancient Asians trekking into North America — as the studies broadened to include Asians across the continent, the results began to reveal that the migration pattern is much more complex and diverse than long thought.
Native American tribes are comprised of four distinct, maternal lineages, which can be found throughout North, Central, and South America. However, only three of the lineages have been found in Siberian-Asian populations. The fourth group has now been traced to aboriginal groups in Southeast Asia, China, Japan, Melanesia, and Polynesia. So not only did the first humans walk here across a land bridge, they also arrived in boats — from many different parts of Asia and from many different racial groups.
It should be pointed out, however, that since no living Native American group carries the exact genetic variation found in the present-day Icelanders, for now it is almost impossible to conclusively prove a direct, thousand-year-old genetic link. We may have to wait a bit more for some indisputable evidence, such as finding an ancient Native American bone containing DNA that is a perfect match for the variation.
For stories like this, I wish we could employ some of that cut-and-dry TV forensic science. Because in my mind, I already see a Native American woman, standing proud on the deck of a Viking ship, in the choppy North Atlantic waves. Did the wind blow through her long, black hair as she wondered what she was sailing into on the other side of the world? Once she arrived, did she become a local celebrity — or even a goddess? Did she ever return to our shores, to tell her people of the wonders across the great waters?
Here’s to your adventures, in whatever corner of the world you find them,