Genomic analysis reveals previously unknown hunter-gatherer population in Siberia and gene flow from North America to North Asia

On January 12, a group of researchers published a study in Current Biology that sheds light on the makeup of early Holocene Siberian people. While the movement of people from North Asia to North America across the Bering Sea is well-known, the genetic makeup of those who lived in North Asia during this time has remained mysterious due to limited . However, this new study presents from ten individuals, some up to 7,500 years old, which help to fill the gap and reveal gene flow from North America to North Asia.

The researchers discovered a previously unknown group of early Holocene Siberian people who lived in the Neolithic Altai-Sayan region, near the intersection of Russia, China, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan. Genetic analysis showed that they were descendants of both paleo-Siberian and Ancient North Eurasian (ANE) people. The Altai hunter-gatherer group contributed to many contemporary and subsequent populations across North Asia, indicating the great mobility of these foraging communities.

The Altai region is famous for being the location where the Denisovans, a new archaic hominin group, was discovered. However, it also has historical significance as a crossroad for population movements between northern Siberia, Central Asia, and East Asia over millennia.

The researchers suggest that the unique gene pool they uncovered may represent an optimal source for the inferred ANE-related population that contributed to groups from North and Inner Asia, such as Lake Baikal hunter-gatherers, Okunevo-associated pastoralists, and Tarim Basin mummies. They also found Ancient Northeast Asian (ANA) ancestry in another Neolithic Altai-Sayan individual associated with distinct cultural features, which had initially been described in Neolithic hunter-gatherers from the Russian Far East.

Photo of grave. Credit: Nadezhda F. Stepanova

The study's findings indicate the spread of Ancient Northeast Asian (ANA) ancestry to a greater extent than previously observed, with evidence of its presence 1,500 kilometers further west. The researchers identified 7,000-year-old individuals in the Russian Far East with Jomon-associated ancestry, suggesting a link with hunter-gatherer groups from the Japanese Archipelago.

The data also suggest multiple phases of gene flow from North America to northeastern Asia over the past 5,000 years, reaching as far as the Kamchatka Peninsula and central Siberia. The researchers believe these findings demonstrate a largely interconnected population across North Asia from the early Holocene period onwards.

The study's lead author, Ke Wang from Fudan University, China, expressed surprise at the discovery of an individual with a distinct genetic profile from the other Altai hunter-gatherers. This individual had affinities with populations located in the Russian Far East and was buried in a cave with rich burial goods, possibly indicative of shamanism.

Wang believes this finding suggests that the Altai region was home to individuals with diverse genetic and cultural backgrounds living in close proximity. It remains unclear whether the individual originated from a nearby population or came from a more distant location.

Overall, the genetic data from the Altai region suggest that ancient hunter-gatherer societies experienced frequent migrations and admixtures, which were not uncommon. According to senior author Cosimo Posth, these findings demonstrate that highly connected groups existed in North Asia as early as 10,000 years ago, despite long geographic distances.

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