Re: DNA Ties Together Scattered Peoples
- DNA Ties Together Scattered Peoples
Data on descendants of the Chumash spur new ideas about the first
settlers of the Americas.
By Steve Chawkins
Times Staff Writer
September 11, 2006
Over the years, a couple of dozen descendants of the Chumash Indians
have complied with the odd requests of their old friend John Johnson,
a leading scholar of the tribe's culture and head of the anthropology
department at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. After all,
what harm could come from parting with a few of their hairs or letting
him swab the inside of their cheeks for a saliva sample?
What emerged from Johnson's DNA studies are tantalizing clues that
link some of today's Chumash with settlers of coastal regions from
Alaska to Tierra del Fuego more than 10,000 years ago.
"It's mind-boggling," said Ernestine De Soto, a 68-year-old nurse
whose rare strain of DNA matches that found in ancient remains
thousands of miles from the Santa Barbara area, where her family has
lived for centuries. "I've always known I was Chumash, but this is
Johnson's work, along with studies by archeologists and geneticists
nationwide, adds more strong evidence to a theory that challenges
long-held assumptions about when and how the first Americans arrived.
Ever since it was articulated by a 16th century Spanish missionary to
South America, the prevailing theory has been that the first
inhabitants of the Americas were big-game hunters who crossed a
1,000-mile land bridge from Asia, slogging down into the Great Plains
through an inland corridor created by receding glaciers.
A number of scientists believe some may have trudged from Asia and
then built boats that, over hundreds of generations, took them to
spots where they put down roots along the length of the Pacific Coast.
"We're dealing with the whole period when glaciers began melting and
people first became able to enter the Americas from Asia," said
Johnson, who addressed a scholarly conference about his findings over
the weekend at UC Santa Barbara. "Who were these first people that
arrived in California?"
To Johnson and his colleagues, the answer involves centuries-old
records from California missions, bones found at sites ranging from
China to Chile, and a tooth extracted from a 10,300-year-old jawbone
discovered in a place called On Your Knees Cave on an island off Alaska.
Found in 1996, the tooth from Prince of Wales Island wound up in a lab
at UC Davis, where doctoral student Brian M. Kemp tried for two years
to extract its DNA a feat frequently made impossible in old bones
because of natural decay. But this tooth had been protected for
millennia by cave walls and cold. Finally, Kemp succeeded.
The tooth yielded the oldest DNA sample in the Western Hemisphere.
"It was fantastic," recalled Kemp, now a researcher at Vanderbilt
University in Tennessee. "When I first got the DNA out of this tooth,
it looked different. I didn't immediately recognize it as a pattern
frequent in the Americas."
In fact, as Kemp and others pored over a database of DNA patterns from
3,500 Native Americans, they found just 1% that exhibited the same
distinctive markers. Some of the samples were drawn from living people
and others from ancient bones. More than half were from the Cayapa
tribe of Ecuador. Others were from tribes in Mexico and the southern
reaches of Chile.
Four matching samples, it would turn out, were from Chumash
descendants living along California's Central Coast.
Johnson had started collecting DNA 14 years ago, approaching Chumash
descendants whose family trees he traced by painstakingly scouring
records of births, baptisms, marriages and deaths compiled over two
centuries by the Franciscan friars of California missions.
"Though there are no full-blooded Chumash left, he could go to the
records and determine that this person is a direct maternal descendant
of this particular Chumash woman in this mission or that village,"
said Joseph Lorenz, a molecular anthropologist collaborating with
Johnson on a paper to be published in the Journal of California and
Great Basin Anthropology.
Verifying such links is important because researchers mainly seek
mitochondrial DNA the sequence in all of us that is inherited only
from our mothers. It's easier to extract from cells. And, except for
periodic mutations, it stays much the same from generation to
generation, allowing a journey directly to a family's roots without
distracting side trips.
Johnson acknowledged his sample is small but said it still points to
just one conclusion: "My hypothesis is that the Chumash descended from
a very early coastal migration that resulted in the distribution of
people down to the tip of South America."
Other experts familiar with his research agree, although they
acknowledge that physical evidence is difficult to find. After all,
they note, the melting glaciers put a lot of early prime beachfront
real estate under water.
Johnson's evidence "suggests the Pacific Coast is a primary conduit
linking north and south," said University of Pennsylvania
anthropologist Theodore Schurr. The DNA results, he said, are
additional pieces of evidence in a case that has been building for
about 10 or 15 years.
In 1999, Johnson announced that human bones found 40 years earlier at
Arlington Springs on Santa Rosa Island off the Ventura County coast
were 13,000 years old, making them the oldest human remains in North
Even that long ago, Santa Rosa would have been an island, so the
presence of the bones suggested that boats were in use along the coast
in that ancient time. Nobody is sure of the dates, but some scientists
believe the migrations from Asia along inland routes in North America
had not yet started.
In 1997, scientists presented their findings of prehistoric
settlements at the Monte Verde site in coastal Chile. Estimates of
their age ranged from 12,500 to 33,000 years old.
Some linguists have contended that the sheer number of Native American
languages at one point there were 88 between Baja California and
Oregon indicate settlement for at least 20,000 years, well before
the retreat of the glaciers would have allowed travel by foot.
Johnson's findings intrigue Jonathan Cordero, a sociologist at
California Lutheran University who has a distant relative with the
rare DNA. Johnson traced the relative's ancestry to Escolastica Maria,
a Chumash woman who was baptized at Mission Santa Barbara when she was
40, in 1788.
"This confirms a lot of Native American stories about origins,"
Cordero said. "The Aztecs, for instance, say their ancestors came from
the north, and this is certainly consistent with that."
Meanwhile, the field is brimming with unanswered questions. Could
inland and coastal migrations have taken place at the same time? Just
when did people first embark from Asia? And are there Asians whose DNA
is a match for the stuff that their ancestors theoretically carried
all the way down to Chile? Only one known match in China has been
To Ernestine De Soto, whose mother was the last native speaker of
Chumash, a bigger question yet arises when she ponders her link to an
ancient tooth in Alaska and tribesmen in an Ecuadoran village.
"When are they going to link us all?" she asked.