Research project: Ancient DNA study of extinct people from Tierra del Fuego and the implications for the population history of South America
Archaeological, linguistic, and genetic evidence has established that Native Americans originated in Asia and entered the New World through the Bering Strait. Any further details including the time of the first dispersal, number of migrations, or migration routes remain subject to debate. Many Native populations of South America became decimated by European settlers since the 15th century. The remaining Native Americans became highly admixed. Therefore, the pre-Columbian genetic make-up of Native Americans and information on their earliest dispersal has been partly lost or blurred by recent admixture.
During my PhD, I analyze the DNA of extinct people from Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, who lived in the extreme South of Chile and Argentina until the beginning of the 20th century. From their specific robust cranial morphology, it has been suggested that the Fuegians might be the descendants of a putative migration wave predating the arrival of other Native American populations. Hence, the genetic makeup of the Fuegian populations might prove the missing piece of the puzzle.
Ancient genetic analysis of complete mitochondrial genomes from human skeletal remains predating the decimation of the Fuegian populations allows me to recover some of the original genetic structure and enable me to address their origins in the context of genetic variation observed among extant Native American populations. I am hoping to shed light on the time and number of migration waves to the Americas, and to elucidate the intriguing settlement patterns and population history of South America.