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Race

Are Native American Indians fundamentally Asians?

-A curious adult from Singapore

August 20, 2004

Most theories say Native American Indians migrated to the American continent from Asia across a land bridge around 11,500 years ago. Yes, this would, in fact, make the first Americans Asians.

However, the story gets more complex! As I said, for a long time archeologists believed that all Native Americans were descended from people from Siberia who crossed over to Alaska about 11,500 years ago. They traveled on a land bridge under what is now the Bering Strait. These people were called the Clovis People after an archeological site near Clovis, NM. They first colonized the uninhabited lands of North America. Later they migrated to Central and South America.

Scientists were able to figure this out from looking at human and other remains found at archeological sites. Also the language spoken by some Native American people closely resembles ancient Asian languages. This was more convincing evidence for the theory that Native Americans came from Siberia.

Now there is evidence that people other than the Clovis People arrived to the Americas at different times and from different places. This evidence comes from looking at lots more archeological sites, and studying the DNA of Native Americans.

Some years ago archeologists found the remains of an ancient settlement in Chile. They were surprised to find that it was 12,500 years old. This is much more ancient than the Clovis People! Also, the skeletons found in this site resemble more the people of Polynesia than the inhabitants of Siberia. The theory is that these people may have arrived by boat to America from Polynesia. Now we believe that there were separate groups of people who came to America from Asia.

Scientists also found that studying Native Americans' DNA -- the genetic blueprint that is passed down through generations -- can show where they came from. They did this by looking at mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). MtDNA comes from a small compartment of the cell called the mitochondrion. This is the place where all the energy is made for the cell.

MtDNA is different from the DNA found in the nucleus in that it always comes from the mother. DNA in the nucleus is from both mother and father. Looking at mtDNA lets you compare people across many generations on the mother's side.

Scientists looked at mtDNA from many Native Americans and many Asians. They were surprised again. Based on their DNA, Native Americans belong to five different groups. Groups 1-4 are closely related to Asian people. The fifth group is most closely related European or Western Asian people! So it seems most Native Americans are originally from Asia and as you said fundamentally Asian. However, it seems there are some whose origins are from Europe!


Bird\'s eye view of the Bering Strait today


Migration of Asian people into
the American continent