Darrell “Dusty” Crawford, whose Native American Blackfoot name is Lone Bull, looks over his results with fascination. He’d taken a DNA test with an outfit called Cellular Research Institute (CRI) and has learnt much about his heritage. What he doesn’t know yet is that the conclusions will also have implications for all Native Americans.
The immediately astonishing thing about Crawford’s test is how far back the scientists at the CRI have traced his genetic history. In fact, the company has said that it has never managed to delve this far back in time before. And this achievement could force a rethink on the history of humans in the Americas.
Crawford lives in Heart Butte, Montana, a city located in the 1.5 million acres of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in the north-west of the state. With a population of more than 17,000, the Blackfeet Nation is one of America’s largest Native American tribes. Three other Blackfeet reservations are located in Alberta, Canada.
We’ve made the startling assertion that Crawford’s DNA test may have a major impact on what we think about the arrival of humans on the American continent. But what precisely do we know on this subject? Well, the best-known theory describes a migration of people from the northern territory of what is now Siberia into the land we today know as Alaska.
To understand how humans might have migrated from Siberia to Alaska, we have to go back to the time of the last Ice Age. In fact, what is commonly called the Ice Age was actually a period of glaciation. There have been five ice ages in our planet’s history and we’re currently in one called the Quaternary, which started 2.6 million years ago.
Simply put, an ice age is defined as a period when both of Earth’s poles are covered in ice.
And glaciations are periods when the ice extends across much of the planet, of which there have been 12 in the last one million years. The last glaciation peaked around 18,000 years ago and came to an end about 11,700 years ago.
And it was this during this last glaciation period, around 15,000 years ago, when experts say that humans crossed from Siberia into Alaska. Today, walking that route is an impossibility thanks to the obstacle of the Bering Sea which separates the two land masses. But because so much of the world’s water was locked up as ice back then, sea levels were as much as 400 feet lower.
With sea levels so different to how they are now, it was likely possible to cross from Siberia to Alaska. And it’s more than just a mere theory. In fact, there is archaeological evidence for an ancient land-bridge migration. One example of this comes from a find made by a team led by the University of Alaska’s Dr. Ben Potter.
Now, Potter and his colleagues discovered the skeletons of two children, both girls. One had been still-born, the other died not long after birth. And the bodies had been buried beneath a camp fire some 11,500 years ago. The location of the excavation was the Upper Sun River which lies in central Alaska in the Tanana River Basin.
Interestingly, scientists were able to extract mitochondrial DNA from the older infant. This particular type of genetic material enables researchers to identify the female ancestry line for an individual. And this sample matched the DNA found in contemporary Native Americans. That strongly suggests a connection between the child found in central Alaska and people who lived – and live – further south in the Americas.
The significance of this find is that the land the site occupies is believed to have been part of the ancient land bridge between Siberia and Alaska. Today, of course, much of what was once dry land is now underwater. Although there is no genetic connection with people in modern Siberia, it’s believed that’s because settlers spent long enough living near the land bridge, after crossing it, for genetic diversity to arise. But their genes do match those of some Native Americans alive today.
Further evidence of humans crossing into the American continent from Siberia came in a study published in May 2020. And the research was led by He Yu of Germany’s Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. The study focused on a single fossilized human tooth which dates back to the Upper Paleolithic era, some 14,000 years ago. It was discovered in southern Siberia, near Lake Baikal.
Now, the male tooth yielded enough DNA to work with. And the analysis showed the genetic material was a particular mix of DNA from north-east Asia and north Eurasia. That is a match for the genetic material found in many contemporary Native Americans. So this dating pushed back the earliest known DNA of this type from 11,500 to 14,000 years ago.
Talking to New Scientist in May 2020, Yu said, “It’s not a population that moved to America and then just disappeared in the Eurasian continent.” She added that in ancient times this genetic fingerprint extended across Siberia during a time when the population there was still closely associating with people from north-east Asia.
Meanwhile, Anders Bergstrom of the Francis Crick Institute in London added his view in the New Scientist. He said, “What this and other ancient DNA studies are showing is that to understand the origins of Native American populations, one must study ancient Siberia.” Of course, this point adds to the credibility of the land bridge theory.
And Bergstrom continued, “Lake Baikal appears to have been a genetic contact zone for a long time, bringing together people from the west and the east both early on in the Paleolithic and more recently during the Bronze Age.” If Bergstrom is correct, these Siberian people may be the ancestors of today’s Native Americans.
However, the idea that the first Americans crossed into the continent via that ancient land bridge from Siberia to Alaska is not entirely unchallenged. Writing for National Geographic in June 2018 author and journalist Simon Worrall outlined the alternative theories in a series of questions.
Worrall wrote, “How did human beings first come to North America? Across the Bering Strait, on foot? Down the ‘kelp highway’ by boat? Across the Atlantic via the polar ice cap? And when did they reach here? 10,000 years ago? 40,000? Or were they always here, as the Navajo and other Native American tribes believe?” As you can see, there are many possibilities.
Furthermore, in the National Geographic article, Worrall interviewed Craig Childs who had just published a book on Native American origins, Atlas of a Lost World. And Childs confirms that the land bridge theory is the most prominent line of thought. However, he goes on to outline claims that the first people to settle in the Americas had arrived by boat from Europe.
That transatlantic theory is supported by the frequent finds of ancient Clovis Weapons on America’s east coast. Often in the form of arrowheads or spear points, these artifacts bear a striking resemblance to weaponry found in Spain and southern France, Childs explained. This seaborne route would have seen people sailing across the Atlantic in skin-covered vessels and landing in Virginia or Maryland.
To add to that, Childs discusses the beliefs of Native Americans themselves. Some Natives hold that, “The first people there came out of the ground. These are stories related to origin and creation stories all over the Americas. Native tribes have clear stories about how they got here, coming out of caves or up through springs and underground sources.”
Childs said that, “We think of the arrival of the first people as one group braving their way across a land bridge, when in fact it was many groups, many different languages, and technologies arriving at different times from different directions.” So, perhaps the truth is that the story of the arrival of humans in the Americas is multifaceted.
As we’ve seen, some Native Americans, such as Darrell Crawford, have turned to DNA testing to learn more about their past. But of course, it’s not only them who’ve caught on to this modern technology. Many people from different backgrounds have turned to DNA testing to unveil truths. In some cases people have turned to testing to confirm or refute parenthood or other familial links.
Now, the procedure for a DNA test starts with a sample of blood or saliva from the individuals concerned. Then experts analyze the samples to see if there are any genetic similarities. You see, specific characteristics can provide evidence about an individual’s genetic heritage.
And in Crawford’s case, he took a DNA test because he was looking to learn about his ancestral past. In fact, it was his brother Alvin “Willy” Crawford who had persuaded him to take a test. Talking to the Great Falls Tribune in December 2019, Crawford remembered that, “He’s the one who encouraged me to do this, and he wanted to compare our results.”
Sadly, Alvin was struck down by a heart attack and died before his brother had a chance to show him the results. Crawford’s sibling had been a firefighter with the Chief Mountain Hotshots, an outfit that fights wildfires on Blackfoot land. And he’d also worked at the Blackfeet Community College, teaching construction industry skills.
In fact, Alvin had already taken a DNA test with Ancestry. Com but hadn’t been satisfied with the results. That’s why Crawford turned to a different company, CRI, which we mentioned earlier. And the company, based in Santa Monica, California, claims an accuracy level of more than 90 percent for its testing methods.
Anyway, Crawford described his brother’s love of all things heritage to the Great Falls Tribune. He said, “He was fascinated by our history, and it never dawned on me how much he knew until one night we were talking about land, and he knew so much history.” And Crawford remembered the events of Alvin’s tragic death at the age of just 62.
He recalled, “I’d just talked to him about my result. My mom was interested in it, so I took it to her to read. He said he was going to read it, but he never made it to her house to read it. He would have been really happy with the results.” And those results were completely stunning, with implications for our knowledge about the migration of humans to the Americas.
You see, CRI Genetics was able to tell Crawford that its researchers had succeeded in tracing back his genealogy to 55 generations ago. Although the company normally claims 90 percent confidence in their results, in this case it felt able to raise this to 99 percent. Overall, it meant that his ancestors dated back some 17,000 years ago.
Now, CRI emphasized how unusual this finding was. In fact, it was so unexpected, they said, that it was the genetic equivalent of finding the legendary BigFoot. And Crawford’s lineage stretched back further in time than any other person’s examined by the company. Yes, CRI had never seen anything quite like it.
As a child, Crawford had been taught about the land bridge theory, and how his descendants had probably reached the Americas. But the results of his DNA test seemed to contradict this. It appeared to show that people might indeed have come to America over the ocean.
We heard earlier about the possibility that Stone Age people had travelled in ancient times from southern France and Spain. But Crawford’s genetic heritage opened up another possibility. Indeed, his DNA linked him to people who’d originated from the Pacific. So the theory goes that they had crossed the seas, arrived in South America and then migrated northwards.
You see, Crawford’s DNA made him part of the MtDNA Haplogroup B2, which is only rarely seen in people from regions in the north of the Americas such as Canada and Alaska. Furthermore, this lineage actually appeared in what is now Arizona some 17,000 years ago. And people from this group are one of four major Native populations, known as clans, which spread across the Americas many millennia ago.
Interestingly, most modern Native Americans can trace their lineage back to one of these clans. They are named Sachi, Ai, Chie and Ina. And the Ina group is named after an important figure in Polynesian mythology who is said to symbolize the first woman. If you ever happen to be in the Cook Islands in the Pacific, take a look at a $20 bill. You’ll see Ina’s likeness on it. More importantly, Crawford himself is from Ina, according to his results.
Now, the closest association with the DNA element of MtDNA Haplogroup B2 is with people from the Pacific. Speaking about this, a representative from CRI Genetics told the Great Falls Tribune that, “Its path from the Americas is somewhat of a mystery as there are no frequencies of the haplogroup in either Alaska or Canada.”
The company’s spokesperson continued, “Today this Native American line is found only in the Americas, with a strong frequency peak on the eastern coast of North America.” So Crawford’s DNA connection to Polynesia seems to point away from both an Atlantic crossing from the west or a land bridge migration from the north, to a journey across the Pacific.
What’s more, Crawford’s detailed results were fascinating. You see, they showed that 83 percent of his heritage came from Native American genes, with an unusually high 73 percent of that from one single line. But, like so many Americans, Crawford had traces of a range of other peoples in his DNA.
Yes, the test results showed that nearly ten percent of Crawford’s DNA was European in origin. And just over five percent came from East Asia, specifically Southern Han Chinese and Japanese. Meanwhile, around two percent of his DNA was from South Asia and a small amount, less than a quarter of a percent, from Sierra Leone in Africa.
So Crawford is keen to encourage his fellow Native Americans to turn to DNA testing. For he believes that genetic analysis could transform our understanding of the heritage of the first humans to settle in the Americas. But he does warn that tests can reveal disconcerting truths. As he said, “It might not come back as expected, and nobody is ‘full blood.’”