Native Village
Youth and Education news
March 1, 2010     Volume 1

Scientists Rebuild Iceman Genome From Hair Sample
by Gregory Mone
Condensed by Native Village

An artist's drawing of Inuk

Denmark: For the first time, scientists have rebuilt the genome of an ancient human. The man, called Inuk, was a Palaeo-Eskimo who lived about 4,000 years ago on the western coast of Greenland.

Inuk belonged to the extinct Saqqaq culture, the first to inhabit Greenland. He had brown eyes, brown skin, shovel-shaped front teeth and a problem with dry earwax. Inuk might have been going bald, too, but he managed to leave behind a very valuable clump of hair in the permafrost.

"We were dealing with very, very short pieces of DNA," said  Eske Willerslev, one of the the 53 international scientists on the team.  "It was a massive puzzle of 3.5 billion pieces that you have to stick together in the right way."

The ancient DNA offered other details such as metabolism and genetic predispositions. "I was actually quite surprised at the details we could get out of this," Willerslev says. "I think it's quite amazing that you could say that this guy had dry earwax."

Scientists also learned how the Saqqaq relates to other ancient and modern people. It had been thought that the Saqqaq people were ancestors of today's Inuit and Native Americans. Now scientists believe that Inuk's ancestors migrated to the New World from Siberia more than 4,400 years ago.  "It was very clear that he's not ancestral to modern people found in the New World," Willerslev notes. "His closest relatives are three Siberian groups."

Inspired by their success with Inuk, Willerslev and his team are now turning to South America. They will study 150 different ancient hair samples collected across the continent. Some date back 8,000 years. Scientist will address migration patterns -- and something new. Willersley said.  "We're looking into the origin of clothes, and the clothes culture in the Americas."

The International team who studied Inuk's DNA are from Denmark, the United States, China, Great Britain, Australia,  Estonia, France and Russia. "It was a huge amount of people involved in piecing all this together," Willerslev said.

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