Genetic Analysis Of World’s Oldest Natural Mummy Changes What We Know About Native American History

Skulls and other human remains from Lagoa Santa, Brazil kept in the Natural History Museum of Denmark and tested for genetic analysis. Natural History Museum of Denmark

Advanced genetic testing of some of North and South America's most controversial human remains is changing what we know about how ancient humans behaved and ultimately came to inhabit the region, potentially rewriting historical timelines as we know them.

Published today in Science, the study genetically analyzed DNA recovered from 15 ancient genomes discovered across the Americas, from Alaska to Patagonia. The results from two particularly contentious mummies can now dismiss a theory that Paleoamericans – a group of genetically different humans – existed in North America before Native Americans.

When Danish explorer Peter W. Lund discovered the Lagoa Santa remains in the 19th century, his researchers came up with the “Paleoamerican hypothesis” to suggest that the group of skeletons were not Native Americans due to their different cranial morphology. A century later, the remains of a 40-year-old man who died 10,600 years ago were found in Spirit Cave in the US Great Basin Desert and for nearly two decades, the “Spirit Cave Mummy” was at the heart of a legal battle. Nevada’s Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe claimed cultural affiliation with the remains and requested they be repatriated under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The federal government refuted their claim, contending the remains were genetically different than Native Americans.

That’s where Copenhagen-based researcher Eske Willeslev came in. As part of an international study, Willeslev was already sequencing other contentious remains (like the Lovelock skeletons, an Inca mummy, Chilean Patagonia's oldest human remains, as well as the 9,000-year-old milk tooth from a young Alaskan girl) when the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe granted him permission to analyze the Spirit Cave Mummy.

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