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Author(s) of the publication: Ilya ZAKHAROV

Articles in this rubric reflect the opinion of the author.

Pages. 20

By Ilya ZAKHAROV, RAS Corresponding Member, N. I. Vavilov Institute of General Genetics, Russian Academy of Sciences

America was a terra incognita to Columbus and other seafarers after him. A land populated by tribes quite different from Europeans, Asians and Africans. The very name, Indians, given to the native Americans was but a misnomer. The many legends aside, they could not tell where their ancestors came from. Some said that American Indians descended from one of the ten tribes of Israel banished from the land of their forefathers. There are many other surmises to this effect. For instance, Pater Antonio Calanch of Spain (17th century) believed that the native Americans were the descendants of Tartars. Strange as it may seem, this suggestion is not so far off the mark.

Much later, in the 20th century, anthropologists found that American Indians (or Amerinds, as they are called in the foreign literature-and we shall stick to this name) and people of the Asian race are akin. Geologists have indicated the pathway whereby the Amerind ancestors were crossing from Asia into the New World-that was the land of Beringia, now the Bering Strait. And last, archeologists have established the time of man's appearance in America, the Paleolithic (old stone) Age (40 to 25 thousand years ago).

The Asian continent is inhabited by many peoples essentially different in their anthropological type. Yet none exhibits any distinct physical related-ness to the Amerinds in the ancestral line; that is, the Amerinds seem to have no progenitors and no "cousins" among Asian tribes. The many tongues spoken by the native Americans (around 3,000 all in all) cannot give us a clue either. It is only in "genetic information", in the DNA of the human genome (this DNA changing but rather sluggishly), that we should look for evidence on some kind of relatedness between the peoples of these two continents that diverged in their history dozens of thousands of years ago.

Two Soviet scientists, anthropologist Georgi Debets and geneticist Yuri Rychkov, made a notable contribution in the 1950s to 1980s to a theory postulating that Asian migrants were the ancestors of the present-day Amerinds. Yuri Rychkov, on having compared the polymorphism (diversity) of Siberian peoples according to proteins and blood groups with the same characters in America's aborigines, concluded that a single ancestral population inhabited Asia about 26 thousand years ago, one that gave birth to the contemporary peoples of Asia's northeast and to the Indians of the New World.

Earlier attempts to establish genetic relatedness among different peoples had not been successful until the beginning of the 1990s: researchers knew of no specific markers proper to a particular race or an ethnic group (ethnos) to make identification possible.

In the 1980s geneticists got down to the job of reading the human genome. That is to say, they were out to find the sequence of elementary chemical units in it, the nucleotides (these four basic nucleotides are designated as A, T, G, C); it is in the alternating set of these "letters" that the genomes of various organisms, individuals within one and the same species and, finally, parts of the same genome differ.

Let us recall that the human genome comprises three parts passed down from generation to generation quite differently. First, these are the chromosomes inherited by offspring from father and mother. Each one among us combines, in our chromosomal characteristics, hereditary traits of our parents. Second, these are the sex chromosomes designated X and Y. The Y chromosome is proper to males only, it contains as good as no genes but is responsible for the embryo's male sex. The Y chromosome passes from father to son. And the third part of the human genome is mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA, contained in the cell cytoplasm, not in the cell nucleus as the chromosomes are. MtDNA is passed down the female line of descent, from mother to children. In subsequent generations only daughters will inherit and pass mtDNA to their own daughters in turn; the boys, even should they inherit it from their mothers, will not pass it to their progeny. MtDNA molecules within a cell are closed into a circle, and each cell contains as many as several thousand. That is why mtDNA is conserved even in bones dug up by archeologists and paleontologists. And that is why it is a welcome object of research. Studies of mtDNA furnished the first genetic proofs of the Central Asian origin of the Amerinds.

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A normal mtDNA contains as many as 16,569 nucleotides. In the late 1980s microbiologists sequenced them in full. Next came comparative studies of individuals within one and the same ethnic group and of those from different peoples. All these individuals proved to be quite "variable"-rather, families of female lineage showed differences.

That is why forensic medicine experts use mtDNA analysis in their examinations.* Some individuals have a few extranucleotides in their mtDNA, while others do have a few less, that is lost either in insertions or in deletions. Still others have the standard "letters" of their mtDNA replaced by atypical ones.

Next, each of the chief human races-the African, the European and the Asian-is characterized by a particular set of mtDNA types designated by Latin letters. And yet a computer analysis of nucleotide sequences proper to the Asian and European types indicated the African line of descent. Furthermore, a well-substantiated theory advanced in the 1980s postulated the African origins of the entire human race. Judging by a total body of paleontological and genetic data, the wise man, Homo sapiens, made his appearance in Africa about 150 thousand years ago. As to the native population of the Americas, the picture obtains as follows: the Amerinds have five types of mtDNA; four (А, В, С, D) occur quite frequently and account for 97 percent of the total. The fifth type, X, is quite rare. The first four types are of Asian origin, and the fifth one is found in Europe.

And now, over to the results of our own studies. Taking part were Ilya Zakharov of the N. I. Vavilov Institute of General Genetics; Miroslav Derenko and Boris Malyarchuk of the Magadan-based RAS Institute of the Problems of the North; and Chodurad Dorzhu and Urana Ondar of Tuva State University. To begin with, we established the geographical location of the probable homeland of the Amerinds. But first, a few words about the distinctive characters of the four mtDNA types mentioned above, namely А, В, С and D. The A type of mtDNA has a nucleotide substitution at position 663; the В type lacks 9 nucleotides; the С type has two substitutions (at positions 13, 259 and 13,262); and last, the D type of mtDNA is characterized by a nucleotide substitution at 5,176.

So, both the Asians and the Amerinds were found to share common types of mtDNA. There might be peoples in Asia after all that, though not direct Amerind ancestors, could have preserved the closest genetic relatedness to the Amerinds. An American research team (in whose work Rem Sukemik, a

See: V. Pchelyakova, "The Tsar, After AH", Science in Russia, No. 3, 1996.-Ed.

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Novosibirsk geneticist, took part) furnished data on a large number of ethnic groups inhabiting Siberia's northeast. The authors of these findings must have been disappointed themselves: whereas all the four main types of mtDNA were present in most of the Amerind tribes, the picture was different in Siberian tribes next door (Eskimos, Chuckchis and other nationalities): only three types were identified, occasionally two and even one. Obviously, these ethnic groups could not be closely related to the American Indians. At about the same time, in the mid-1990s, American research scientists published data on the gene pool of some of the peoples of the Far East. Unlike, say, the Koreans and the Vietnamese, the Tibetans, the Chinese (in China's north) and the Mongolians were found to have all the four "American" types of nucleotides, even though their aggregate occurrence was below 50 percent of the identified variants of mtDNA. Thus the probable ancestral homeland of the Amerinds must have been Manchuria or Mongolia, not Siberia.

In 1997 we sent the first field party to Tuva to collect materials for subsequent laboratory studies of the mitochondria! gene pool of the Tuvinians.

Since our analysis methods are highly sensitive, we took DNA isolated from hair bulbs. Collecting samples (3 to 5 hairs from each individual) was no problem-we could do that in field conditions. No special storage conditions were needed either.

Simultaneously, we studied the gene pool of yet another people, the Buryats, who live east of Lake Baikal and who had drawn no attention from scientists before. The results of this study were presented at a congress of the American Society of Human Geneticists in 1998 and published in 1999. These findings turned out to be quite unexpected and prodded scientists to adopt a new approach in searching for the roots of America's aboriginals. Both the Buryats and the Tuvinians were found to have all the four "American" types of mtDNA, i.e. А, В, С and D, with the total occurrence being record high in Tuvinians-above 70 percent, and 52.4 percent in Buryats. Soon after, an independent research team under Professor Valentin Puzyryov (Tomsk) obtained data confirming our results.

What with the Tuvinians found to have the closest mtDNA relatedness to the Amerinds, it became clear to us what to do next-study the gene pools of other Turkic peoples of Central Asia. Furthermore, we were to determine the rate of occurrence of both the American and the European types and, besides, try to find the X type which, as said above, was identified in Europeans and, though at a low rate of occurrence, among the Amerinds as well.

We also collected and evaluated data on the gene pool of the Altaians, Khakasses, Shortsiand Soyots. Now the Soyots are a very small ethnic group in Buryatia west of Lake Baikal. As well as the Buryats, the Turkic nationalities of Siberia and Central Asia have the mtDNA types А, В, С and D in their gene pool. Their occurrence is the highest in the Tuvinians and Soyots. And like the Buryats, they exhibit the lowest occurrence of the European types of mtDNA. The Shortsi, another small nationality, have a mixed gene pool combining the Asian and the European types to the greatest extent.

Next, we discovered something new and surprising, the X type mtDNA in the Altais. \\fe did not find it in Tuvinians, and no one found it elsewhere in Asia either. Our computer study of this DNA sequence showed it could not come from Europe at a later day-the Altai variant of X proved to be much older, and could be related to the ancestral form of the same variant in present-day Europeans and Amerinds.

Thus a large territory of southern Siberia and Central Asia is inhabited by peoples some of whom carry the four "American" types of mtDNA. The highest concentration of the А, В, С and D types is found among two Turkic national groups, the Soyots and the Tuvinians. Their neighbors, the Altaians (also a Turkic-speaking group), were found to have the X type mtDNA, and it proved much older than one among the Europeans.

All this, let me say, concerns the genome part inherited in the maternal line; accordingly, we could establish the relatedness of the Amerinds and some other peoples of the Altai-Sayan plateau only in the female line of descent. In contrast to mtDNA, the tiny Y chromosome is passed down from father to sons, i.e. in the paternal line. Consequently, by studying the variability of this part of the genome, we

Pages. 23

can get an idea about the origins of the male half of a particular ethnos. The mtDNA relatedness of the contemporary peoples of Central Asia to the Amerinds does not at all mean the same will apply to the Y chromosome as well. The history of these peoples saw many incursions when the conquerors killed off the male population and abducted local females as wives.

Bearing this in mind, we began studying the variability of the Y chromosome among Central Asia's peoples too. A large body of data thus collected was published in part. Yet it did not enable us to draw any definite conclusions. In 1999 Lyudmila Osipova, a geneticist from Novosibirsk, jointly with colleagues from the Institute of Cytology and Genetics (RAS Siberian Branch) and scientists from the United States, Brazil and Australia, published two articles on the problem. The authors compared the variability of the Y chromosome among the native populations of Siberia, particularly, in the Buryats, Altaians and Kets, with that of some native peoples of the Americas and other continents. The Kets, a small ethnic group now populating the middle reaches of the Yenisei (but, according to anthropological evidence, hailing from the Altai-Sayan plateau), revealed the closest relatedness to the Amerinds. The Buryats, too, show the high occurrence of the Amerind variety of the Y chromosome. Hence the expert conclusion: the Asian ancestors of the Amerinds were migrating from an area bounded by Altai in the west and the trans-Baikal region in the east, also including the Sayans and Mongolia's northern districts. \\e, who have studied a different genetic material, arrived at the same conclusion!

Thus ethnic groups now populating the area between Altai and Baikal, along the Sayan Mountains, is genetically closest to the Amerinds. That is, from among the peoples of Asia that have been studied for such relatedness. This is not to mean that the Altai-Sayan tribes are the direct ancestors of the Amerinds. What we mean is that besides other tribes-rather varied genetically-there was a tribe in Asia about 25-40 thousand years ago that descended from four or five women. One part of this tribe moved with receding glaciers farther north, across the desolate expanses of Siberia, over to Beringia. Then, crossing into North America, the tribesmen moved down south to reach the benign South America where they begot hundreds of other tribes and peoples that subsequently developed into the great civilizations of the New W)rid.

The other part of the proto-Turkic (proto-Amerind) tribe stayed in Central Asia to give birth to several ethnic populations that mixed with neighboring tribes. In its purest form, the original gene pool of what we might call "proto-Turki-Amerinds" has preserved in contemporary Tuvinians.

Studies similar to ours have been conducted for other races and ethnic groups. It has been revealed recently that the present-day Europeans descend from only seven women living in different geographical latitudes. The British geneticist Brian Sykes named them Ursula, Xenia, Helen, Welda, Tara, Catherine and Jasmin. A few years ago we, not knowing yet about these names, called the four foremothers of the "proto- Turki-Amerinds" this way: Anay (A), Borbak (B), Chachyy (C) and Daryy (D). Close to 70 percent of the Tuvinians and 97 percent of the North and South American Indians come from these four women.

Now where did the "proto-Turkic-Amerinds" live, and what tongue did they speak? By archeological evidence, Homo sapiens settled Altai 40 to 50 thousand years ago, and the earliest Paleolithic (Old Stone) Age findings discovered in Tuva are dated 20 thousand years back. It might be there, in the Altai-Sayan mountainous district, that the progenitor tribe was born. Or else it came to the Sayans from some other parts, and ousted or destroyed the indigenous population. But in the absence of hard evidence it is always best to choose a simpler hypothesis. And since there are no facts to refute our hypothesis, let us consider the

Pages. 24

Types of mtDNA that occur in Central Asia's peoples. The size of sectors corresponds to the occurrence ofmtDNA types in the gene pool of a particular kin. Red-the "American" types of mtDNA; yellow-the Asian, and blue-the European types. The study of Mongolian gene pools is not completed yet.

Altai-Sayan region the ancestral birthplace of the Amerinds.

Neither archeological nor historical evidence can tell us what way the proto-Amerinds took while moving toward Beringia. As we see it, that tribe of high-landers and huntsmen, loath to go beyond their native landscape, moved along mountain ridges. A look at the map of Asia's northeast will be enough: a giant arch of mountain ranges stretching from Altai in the south to Chukotka in the northeast will certainly catch your eye. These are the Sayan Mountains, Khomar-Daban, the Yablonovy Ridge and ridges parallel to it along the eastern shore of Lake Baikal. These are also the Stanovoi Ridge as well as the Kolyma and Chukotka plateaus, which are a natural route to Alaska; and then come the Rocky Mountains stretching along the western coast of the Americas.

But are there any arguments other than genetic ones to validate the Central Asian origins of Amerinds?

The forefathers of the present-day American Indians separated from the ancestors of contemporary Turkic peoples inhabiting Asia about 40 to 25 thousand years ago. Language and customs, which change faster in their development than genomic elements, might not have retained testimonies of kinship between these two groups of peoples. And yet, ever since the 17th century linguists have pointed to similarity between some Indian languages in America and Turkic ones in Asia. Thus Abrar Karimullin, a Tartar philologist who has collected copious material on corresponding linguistic parallels, published a study on this problem in 1995. Now judge for yourselves how cogent his evidence is.

Native Americans, as everybody knows, made their headdresses of feathers. Other peoples could have done that quite on their own, independently. For one, shamans (voodoos) of Central Asia wore feather headgear as well. Here is part of a hymn of Tuvinian shamans which Mongush Kenin-Lopsan, a scholar, writer and shaman, translated into Russian and published in 1995:

My headdress of black eagle's feathers,

And it's stately and high.

My headdress of yellow eagle owl's feathers,

And it swings right and left.

My headdress of proud falcon's feathers,

And it inspires awe and dread...

The author continues at great length

in singing praises of his headgear.

My headdress of kite's feathers

And it is lighter than wind.

My headdress of a magpie's feathers

And decked in shining horns.

My headdress full of magic

Because it bears feathers of raven,

A sharp-sighted one...

These fragments are eloquent enough, and one cannot honestly say that one is hungry for more.

We know next to nothing about that part of the proto-Amerind tribe that remained in Central Asia. All the various peoples that sprang from their loins have left but scant evidence about them-

Pages. 25

selves over these twenty thousand years. But what we know from archeological findings in Tuva, the tribesmen advanced from the Old Stone (Paleolithic) Age to the New Stone (Neolithic) Age, that is they started domesticating animals and using metal tools.

The first historical evidence appeared only in the closing centuries B.C. Thus Chinese chroniclers speak of Hunnu (Hunnes), a people living north of China. These nomads stepped up their marauding attacks on southern neighbors in the 3rd century B.C. Those times saw the birth of the Hunne power that occupied a vast territory from what is now Kazakhstan in the west to Manchuria in the east. The northern frontier of this power passed across the Sayans. That was the first state of Turkic-speaking peoples in Central Asia. The continuous wars with China and intestine strife resulted in its breakup. The western Hunnes (known as the Huns) joined forces with other tribes and moved west, into Europe, where they wrought havoc in the tottering Roman Empire. Turning north, the Huns reached Gallia (Gaul) where they suffered a crushing defeat in 451 A.D. In Central Asia, a number of Turkic states succeeded one another: the Turkic kaganate in the 6th century, then the Uigur kaganate, subsequently the Kirghiz (Kyrghyz) state. The Turkic tribes shifted to land farming, they used iron tools and utensils, and developed a written language of their own (in runes). The Central Asian Turks (ancestors of the contemporary Tuvinians, Khakasses and Altaians) were the first people on the territory of present-day Russia-not counting in the immigrant Greeks-to make an active use of their alphabet (three centuries before the Eastern Slavs).

The Turkic statehood was destroyed in the early 13th century by Mongols led by the warlord Genghis Khan. Centuries later, in the mid-18th century, the Manchurian dynasty of China ousted the Mongols and imposed its rule on the Turki-populated territories. The fall of this dynasty led to Mongolia's independence in 1912. Mongolia was making claims on the northern territories populated by a Turkic-speaking people (called Uryan-khaitsi in Russia then) who, in 1914, preferred to join Russia since their contacts with the Russians dated from the 17th century. The town of Belotsarsk founded by the Russians became Tuva's capital city, Kyzyl. The People's Republic of Tuva, proclaimed in 1921, joined the Soviet Union in 1944.

The Soviet rule had negative implications for the people's traditional culture in spite of the progress scored in education and healthcare. Somehow the Bolsheviks harbored virulent hatred for Buddhism-they hated it more than any other religion. The Buddhist monasteries and temples in Tuva (and in Buryatia too) were closed and demolished, and Buddhist priests and shamans victimized.

The tables were turned in the 1990s when anti- Russian and anti-Soviet sentiments brought about a partial revival of Buddhism. The old shamans were called back, and new ones brought to the fold. A university opened in the capital city, Kyzyl.

Such is a brief history of the Turks, the descendents of a tribe that, as we see it, was at the roots of the Amerinds.

Illustrations supplied by the author.


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Ilya ZAKHAROV, CENTRAL ASIA, THE BIRTHPLACE OF AMERICA'S ABORIGINALS? // New-York: Libmonster (LIBMONSTER.COM). Updated: 09.09.2018. URL: (date of access: 13.06.2024).

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