Favorite Things Redux: Beringian DNA

Map of gene-flow in and out of Beringia, from 25,000 years ago to present

Scientists have long believed that the first humans made it to the Americas by crossing from now-Russia to now-Alaska. When and how they did it–by boat or by foot–remain matters of contentious debate. Did people move quickly through Alaska and into the rest of North America, or did they hover–as the “Bering standstill” hypothesis suggests–in Beringia (or the Aleutian Islands) for thousands of years?

Archaeologists working at the Upward Sun River site (approximately in the middle of Alaska) recently uncovered the burials of three children: a cremated three year old, and beneath it, a 6-12 week old infant and a 30 week, possibly premature or stillborn fetus. The three year old has been dubbed “Upward Sun River Mouth Child,” and the 6 week old “Sun-Rise Girl Child.” Since these aren’t really names, I’m going to dub them Sunny (3 yrs old), Rosy (6 weeks), and Hope (fetus).

They died around 11,500 years ago, making them the oldest burials so far from northern North America. Rosy and Hope were probably girls; cremation rendered Sunny’s gender a mystery. Rosy and Hope were covered in red ocher and buried together, accompanied by four decorated antler rods, two dart points and two stone axes. (Here’s an illustration of their burial.) The site where the children were buried was abandoned soon after Sunny’s death–perhaps their parents were too sad to stay, or perhaps the location was just too harsh.

Rosy and Hope were well enough preserved to yield DNA.

Surprisingly, they weren’t sisters. Rosy’s mother’s mtDNA hailed from haplogroup C1b, which is found only in the Americas (though its ancestral clade, haplogroup C, is found throughout Siberia.) Hope’s mtDNA is from haplogroup B2, which is also only found in the Americas. Oddly, B2’s parent clade, (B), isn’t common in Siberia–it’s much more common in places like Vietnam, Laos, the Philippines, and Saipan. It’s not entirely absent from Siberia, but it got to Alaska without leaving a larger trail remains a mystery.

Since they are found in the Americans but not Asia, we know these lineages most likely evolved over here; the main questions are when and where. If the Bering Standstill hypothesis is correct and the Indians spent 10-20,000 years stranded in Beringia, they would have had plenty of time to evolve new lineages while still in Alaska. By contrast, if they crossed relatively quickly and then dispersed, these new lineages would have had much less time to emerge, and we would expect them to show up as people moved south.

Source: Ancient Beringians: A Discovery Changing Early Native American Hisotry

Or there could have been multiple migration waves, with different haplogroups arriving in different waves. (There were multiple migration waves, but the others occurred well after Sunny and the others were buried.)

In fact, there are five mtDNA lineages found only in the Americas (A2, B2, C1, D1, and X2a.) With Hope and Rosy, we have now identified all five mtDNA lineages in North American burials over 8,000 years old, lending support to the Beringian Standstill hypothesis.

But were the Upward Sun River children’s families ancestral to today’s Native Americans? Not quite.

It looks like Sunny’s tribe split off from the rest of the Beringians (or perhaps the others split off from them) around 22-18,000 years ago. Most of the others headed south, while Sunny’s people stayed in Alaska and disappeared (perhaps because all of their children died.) So Sunny’s tribe was less “grandparent” to today’s Indians and more “great aunt and uncle,” but they still hailed from the same, even older ancestors who first set out from Siberia.

I have previously favored the Aleutian or at least a much more rapid Beringian route, but it looks like I was wrong. I find the idea of the Bering Standstill difficult to believe, but that may just be my own biases. Perhaps people really did get stuck there for thousands of years, waiting for the ice to clear. What amazing people they must have been to survive for so long in so harsh an environment.

Exploration Friday: Russia in the New World, pt 3

Welcome back. Today we are continuing with Caughey’s History of the Pacific Coast, Chapter XI: Russian America. (Parts one and two are here.) When we left off, Vitus Bering and his crew had struggled (twice!) across the expanse of Siberia, built a boat, and set out in a futile quest to fin Joao-da-Gama-Land, which doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page. Bering’s quest, however, does:

The Great Northern Expedition … was one of the largest organised exploration enterprises in history, resulting in mapping of the most of the Arctic coast of Siberia and some parts of the North America coastline, greatly reducing the “white areas” on the maps. The endeavour was initially conceived by Russian EmperorPeter I the Great and implemented in practice by Russian Empresses Anna and Elizabeth. …

With over 3,000 people directly and indirectly involved, the Second Kamchatka expedition was one of the largest expedition projects in history. The total cost of the undertaking, completely financed by the Russian state, reached the estimated sum of 1.5 million rubles, an enormous amount for the period. This corresponded to one sixth of the income of the Russian state for year 1724.[1]

“Shortly after they foreswore hopes of finding this mythical continent, a storm gave Chirikoff [commander of Bering’s second vessel] excuse to separate from the St. Peter. He sailed east and sighted land on July 15th, apparently just off Latuya Bay. … Chirikoff brought the St. Paul as close to shore as he dared. He saw timid natives in two canoes, but they refused to come near. His only alternative was to sail for Kamchatka. On the way he skirted the Aleutian Islands, anchoring at one of them on September 9th These natives were almost as timid as those seen along the mainland, though they did bring some skins of fresh water. Scarcity of water and supplies and the sickness of most of the men necessitated returning to Avatcha, whee anchor was dropped on October 10th.

1966 Soviet postage stamp commemorating Bering's second voyage and the discovery of the Commander Islands
1966 Soviet postage stamp commemorating Bering’s second voyage and the discovery of the Commander Islands

“Bering, in the meantime, had wasted time and energy in additional search for Chirikoff and for Gama Land. Then he set his course northeast and then north, sighting land on the fifteenth or sixteenth of July in the vicinity of Mt. St. Elias. One day was spent taking on fresh water at a nearby island, while Steller the naturalist made a hurried study of botanical and zoological specimens and deduced what he could of the human inhabitants by examining a shellheap,the remains of a fire with bones scattered about, and an abandoned habitation. The general irritability of the entire group showed itself int he cross purposes of Steller and Bering. The naturalist had the better of the repartee, remarking “that this long and expensive expedition had been planned in order to fetch American water to Asia, and that ten hours of exploration corresponded to the ten years of preparation,” but the commander had his way and the return voyage was begun forthwith.

“Wet and stormy weather with the winds usually contrary slowed their westward passage. They spent forty days going from Kayak to the Shumagin Islands. Over Steller’s protest the boat crew loaded brackish water here, though good was available, and consequently the scurvy became more virulent. Beyond the Shumagin Islands the weather was still worse, with veering and uncertain winds, interspersed with wild storms from the west. According to their reckonings they were almost to Avatcha when land was sighted early in November.”

800px-a_new_and_accvrat_map_of_the_worldEvX: Note that this voyage, begun in 1741, occurred before John Harrison perfected his Marine Chronometer in 1761, and so Bering and his men had no accurate way to measure their longitude at sea. “Reckoning” here is likely dead reckoning–that is, an estimation based on speed and direction. This is a very difficult way to reckon your position across hundreds or thousands of miles of stormy ocean with any accuracy, as many a drowned sailor has learned.

“For some time Bering had been so ill that he was not actually in command. He urged that they struggle on to Avatcha, but the other officers and the men insisted upon putting in at this bay, convinced that they could sail or walk to Avatcha after the sick had recuperated. …

“A short foray inland convinced Steller that this was an island and not Kamchatka,…. Not all of the scurvy victims improved, and by January 8th, thirty lives had been lost including that of the commander.

“Bering Island, on which they were wintering, was quite bleak and dismal. … in the spring they attacked with zest the task of constructing a smaller vessel out of the wreckage of the St. Peter. … with prayers to St. Peter the forty foot craft was launched on August 8th, and five days later the forty-six survivors embarked. …

“They sighted the Kamchatkan shore after three days’ sail, but contrary winds delayed them another ten days in reaching Avatcha. their arrival was the occasion for great rejoicings, and the icon of St. Peter in the church at Petropavlovsk was adorned with silver by some of the saved men. It has been insinuated, however, that those who had given Bering’s men up for lost and had appropriated their belongings were not so elated over their return. …

“the Russian government kept the reports of his explorations secret, and as late as 1750 a scholarly paper was read before the Academy at Paris to prove that he had not reached America. Not until considerably later did extravagant admirers come to call him a “Russian Columbus.” But an immediate sensation was created by the make-shift fur clothing worn by the returned castaways. Chinese merchants at Kamchatka offered what seemed fabulous prices for these sea-otter pelts, initiating thus an interest in this fur trade. For a century thenceforth the sea-otter was to be the magnet attracting Europeans to the North Pacific.”

EvX: And cue the fur rush.

Book on a Friday: the Russian Exploration of America (pt. 2)

Welcome! Today we are continuing with Caughey’s History of the Pacific Coast, Chapter XI: Russian America. (Part one is here.) We left off with the death of Yermak and defeat of his Cossack warriors at the hands of Kutchum Khan’s Tartar forces on the banks of the Irtysh, Siberia.

800px-ob_watershedAs usual, quotes are in “” rather than blockquotes.

“Tartar hostility checked southward expansion, but the rivers invited progress toward the north, while their interlocking tributaries facilitated eastward advance. In common with other frontiers this one advanced irregularly rather than phalanx-like. Around Lake Baikal, for example, Buriat resistance was so stubborn that progress was greatly retarded and Irkutsk was not founded until 1651. In the meantime an ostrog had been built on the Lena in 1632, and traders had pushed on to the waters of the Pacific at Okhotsk in 1639, to the Amur by 1643, and to the Anaduir by 1649. The Kamchatka peninsula was reached in 1650, but the hostility of the natives delayed its occupation for half a century. …

russia-far-eastern-region-map-1“The waves of the North Pacific wafted to Kamchatka some intimations of America: trunks of tall firs and other trees not to be found on the bleak Siberian coast, an occasional dugout canoe, whales with strange harpoon heads imbedded in their back. Land-birds came from the east and went away again. Among the Chukchi in the Anaduir district were a few peculiar women, wearing walrus ivory lip-plugs and speaking a foreign tongue.”

EvX: I believe the “Anaduir” district is now the Anadyrsky District. The Chukchi people live in one of the world’s coldest environments, and traditionally lived similarly to other arctic peoples, like the Sami (Lapps):

aleutsandrelativesdna eskimoandneighborsdnaThe Chukchi are traditionally divided into the Maritime Chukchi, who had settled homes on the coast and lived primarily from sea mammal hunting, and the Reindeer Chukchi, who lived as nomads in the inland tundra region, migrating seasonally with their herds of reindeer. The Russian name “Chukchi” is derived from the Chukchi word Chauchu (“rich in reindeer”), which was used by the ‘Reindeer Chukchi’ to distinguish themselves from the ‘Maritime Chukchi,’ called Anqallyt (“the sea people”).

The Chukchi of far north eastern Russia are closely related to the Eskimo people of Alaska. Their neighbors, like the Selkups and Evens, are more closely related to the Aleutian people.

Back to Caughey:

“Cartographers, in the meantime, exercised their speculative faculties in plotting an island of continental proportions in the North Pacific. They called it Terra de Jeso or Gama Land, and according to popular belief, it was rich in gold and silver. A companion idea, that of the Strait of Anian, caught the fancy of Peter the Great and impelled him, as one of his last official act, to send out an expedition in search of the Northeast Passage. From several who volunteered the czar selected Bering, a Danish sailor who had enlisted in the Russian navy in 1704 and had risen rapidly from the ranks because of his bravery, excellent seamanship, and experience in the East and West Indies.

mysterious, non-existent blob-land
Go explore the mysterious blob-land near Kamchatka!

“Peter’s instructions to Bering were to go to Kamchatka, to build one or two boats, to sail north to determine whether or not America was connected to Asia, to sail to some European settlement in America  or to speak to a European ship in those waters, to make a landing, to draw up an account and prepare a chart, and to bring them back to St. Petersburg.”

EvX: Wikipedia has nothing on specifically “Terra de Jeso” or “Gama Land,” but it does mention “Joao-da-Gama-Land,” which is clearly the same thing, on the page about Bering’s expeditions. Joao-da-Gama-Land, however, does not have its own page. (Go forth, my friends, and make one!)

Peter’s directions were much easier given than filled:

“The overland journey to Kamchatka was itself a stupendous task. Leaving St. Petersburg at the end of January, 1725, Bering traveled to Tobolsk, down the Irtysh, up the Ob, across a long portage to the Yenisei, and up the Tunguska and Ilima to Ilimsk where he had to tie up for the winter on September 29th. the next season’s journey began with a descent of the Lena to Yakutsk. Her Bering divided his force into several groups, the largest of which went overland by pack train to Okhotsk. Cold set in earlier than usual and all the horses were lost, and because they did not reach Okhotsk in time to provide food for their cattle, he had to butcher them. … The division under Spanberg had greater difficulty. These men attempted a part water route. When their boats froze in, they struggled on with hand sledges, often with no other provender than the carcases of Bering’s horses. Relief parties came back to their assistance early in 1727, but by no means all of the men or materials arrived at Okhotsk even then.

“During the winter Bering had built a boat…. he transported his party across the Okhotsk Sea to the mouth of the Bolshaya River on the inner side of the Kamchatka peninsula. But when ascent of this stream proved impossible for the small boats built for the purpose, sledges were resorted to for crossing of the peninsula. …

“For his stupendous achievement in crossing Russia and Siberia and constructing and equipping the St. Gabriel at Kamchatka, Being has received just encomiums of praise. But in connection with his voyage to Icy Cape he has been stigmatized as a common ship captain, devoid of the explorer’s instinct, and unfit to lead a scientific expedition into the Arctic. He went far enough to assure himself that Asia and America were not connected, but not far enough to acquire convincing proof. It was left for Captain Cook a half century later to clarify the question of the width of Bering Strait and for Baron Wrangell a century later to prove positively that the continents are separate.

“Four more winters passed before Bering reached St. Petersburg to make his report. The Empress was favorably impressed and ordered a second expedition to carry out the rest of the original instructions. This time Bering attacked the task with appreciably diminished enthusiasm…

“Not until 1741 could the actual voyage begin. On june 4th of that year the two vessels Bering had built at Okhotsk sailed from Petropavlovsk, Chirkoff and seventy-five men on the St. Paul, Bering with an identical number on the St. Peter. Their plan was to sail southeast to 46 degrees where they expected to find Gama Land, then to turn northeast to America, north to 66 degrees, the latitude of Icy Cape, then due west to determine the width of Bering Strait.”

To be continued…