A clump of hair belonging to a human who lived approximately 4,000 years ago has helped lead researchers, including a Kansas University genetic expert, on the trail of a newly discovered wave of people who migrated to the Arctic.
The findings of the international group of more than 40 researchers were published Friday in the journal Science.
Michael Crawford, head of KU's Laboratory of Biological Anthropology said, "We can show there were a number of migrations. Not all of them succeeded and some of them died out."
This group was one that vanished and the reason remains a mystery, Crawford said.
The hair sample, which was part of the research, was taken from a Saqqaq culture in eastern Greenland that was a chance find in a museum and is now housed in the University of Copenhagen.
Crawford said researchers expected the "Saqqaq Man" to be genetically close to present-day Eskimos or the Na-Dene population, ancestors of some Native Americans.
By using DNA data that Crawford had collected from Siberia and the Aleutian Islands, however, the team determined the genetics were closer to Koryaks and Aleuts, meaning there was a separate migration from Siberia about 4,000 years ago.
The people probably lived in isolation for several thousand years and vanished in the harsh climate about 700 years ago, he said.
The study states: "Therefore, an additional Paleo-Eskimo migration wave should be added to the three-wave hypothesis in explaining the peopling of the Americas."
The discovery is important, Crawford said, because it adds to the understanding of how people migrated into the "New World Arctic," of Alaska, Canada and Greenland.
Eske Willerslev, a renowned Danish anthropologist who headed the study, said, "Our genetic studies show that, in reality, the Paleo-Eskimos — representing one single group — were the first people in the Arctic, and they survived without outside contact for over 4,000 years."
Crawford said the project also shows the value of collaboration among researchers from several countries across a wide variety of disciplines. The international team was headed by the Centre for GeoGenetics at the National History Museum of Denmark, University of Copenhagen.
Willerslev, director of the center, asked Crawford to help examine potential links between the genetics of Siberian populations and DNA samples taken from findings in the Arctic. Willerslev and Crawford have worked together on several projects.