Indian DNA links to six founding mothers


Last Updated: 16 years

A new genetic study suggests that all american indians can trace their lineage to one of just six mothers.

AUTHOR: Malcolm Ritter

Six women mothers of native americans

Nearly all of today’s Native Americans in North, Central and
South America can trace part of their ancestry to six women whose
descendants immigrated around 20,000 years ago, a DNA study suggests.

Those women left a particular DNA legacy that persists to today in about
about 95 percent of Native Americans, researchers said.

The finding does not mean that only these six women gave rise to the
migrants who crossed into North America from Asia in the initial populating
of the continent, said study co-author Ugo Perego.

Lineage began 18,000 to 21,000 years ago

The women lived between 18,000 and 21,000 years ago, though not necessarily
at exactly the same time, he said.

The work was published this week by the journal PLoS One. Perego is from
the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation in Salt Lake City and the
University of Pavia in Italy.

The work confirms previous indications of the six maternal lineages, he
said. But an expert unconnected with the study said the findings left some
questions unanswered.

Perego and his colleagues traced the history of a particular kind of DNA
that represents just a tiny fraction of the human genetic material, and
reflects only a piece of a person’s ancestry.

Mitochondrial DNA comes from only the mother’s side

This DNA is found in the mitochondria, the power plants of cells. Unlike
the DNA found in the nucleus, mitochondrial DNA is passed along only by the
mother. So it follows a lineage that connects a person to his or her
mother, then the mother’s mother, and so on.

The researchers created a “family tree” that traces the different
mitochondrial DNA lineages found in today’s Native Americans. By noting
mutations in each branch and applying a formula for how often such
mutations arise, they calculated how old each branch was. That indicated
when each branch arose in a single woman.

The six founding mothers did not come from Asia

The six “founding mothers” apparently did not live in Asia because the DNA
signatures they left behind aren’t found there, Perego said. They probably
lived in Beringia, the now-submerged land bridge that stetched to North
America, he said.

Further work could change these estimates

Connie Mulligan of the University of Florida, an anthropolgist who studies
the colonization of the Americas but didn’t participate in the new work,
said it’s not surprising to trace the mitochondrial DNA to six women. “It’s
an OK number to start with right now,” but further work may change it
slightly, she said.

That finding doesn’t answer the bigger questions of where those women
lived, or of how many people left Beringia to colonize the Americas, she
said Thursday.

The estimate for when the women lived is open to question because it’s not
clear whether the researchers properly accounted for differing mutation
rates in mitochondrial DNA, she said. Further work could change the
estimate, “possibly dramatically,” she said.