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DNA Reveals Indigenous Mexicans Migrated to California 5,200 Years Ago

Indigenous Mexicans Migrated to California
A recent DNA study suggests indigenous Mexicans migrated to California 5,200 years ago. Credit: Alan / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Over five thousand years ago, hunter-gatherers from Mexico moved to California. A recent genetic study suggests those indigenous Mexicans might have brought unique languages from the south about a thousand years earlier than previously thought.

This new discovery questions the belief that Uto-Aztecan languages, such as Nahuatl (spoken by Aztecs and Toltecs), Hopi, and Shoshoni, were carried up north by ancient migrants from Mexico, along with farming methods for corn, according to Live Science.

Knowing when and where this genetic material arrived in California is important to grasping the Uto-Aztecan migration, says Nathan Nakatsuka, the lead researcher and a population geneticist at the New York Genome Center.

The research was published on Wednesday November 22nd in the journal Nature.

Ancient DNA dated between 7,400 and 200 years ago

Nakatsuka and his team studied the genetics stored in the teeth and bones of seventy-nine ancient individuals discovered in archaeological sites in central and southern California.

These remains spanned from 7,400 to 200 years ago. They also examined ancient DNA from forty individuals in northwestern and central northern Mexico, dated between 2,900 and 500 years ago.

Their DNA comparisons revealed that the indigenous Mexicans migrated from northern Mexico to southern and central California around 5,200 years ago.

The timing of this migration challenges a prevailing notion that the expansion of corn farming around 4,300 years ago caused the Uto-Aztecan languages to spread.

The previous idea suggested that migrant farmers, benefiting from agriculture, surpassed the lifestyle of the hunter-gatherers who inhabited the region earlier.

However, the new study suggests a different story—that these languages might have been disseminated by a migration of hunter-gatherers nearly a thousand years earlier than previously thought, as reported by Live Science.

Previously unknown regional migration

The initial arrivals in the Americas date back tens of thousands of years, as indicated by evidence from various sites.

These include human feces dating back 14,500 years from Paisley Caves in Oregon, artifacts from Monte Verde, Chile, dating to 14,550 years ago, and human footprints in White Sands National Park in New Mexico that are 23,000 years old, as reported by Live Science.

After the initial arrival, people continued to move within the Americas. The recent study uncovers a migration within a specific region that was previously unknown.

The researchers also discovered common genetic traits among the ancient populations of California’s northern Channel Islands and the nearby coast, as well as the Indigenous Chumash people. The genetic makeup of the Chumash individuals in the study, who lived around two hundred years ago, was reflected in this shared ancestry.

Nakatsuka emphasized the significance of respecting indigenous customs, such as burial practices, in the study.

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