Do the Amerindians descend from Southeast Asians?

Many people have recommended I read Johanna Nichols’ Linguistic Diversity in Space and Time¬†over the years. I checked out the book in grad school once but didn’t get around to reading it. But today I see it being referenced in Stephen Oppenheimer’s very strange book about Lemuria-I mean Southeast Asia, Eden in the East.

Both of these books were written in the late 1990s, before the current swell of genome-wide and ancient DNA analysis. Oppenheimer reports Nichols’ comparative analysis of linguistics implies that the ancestors of the Amerindians were not interior Siberians, but coastal people who came up from Southeast Asia.

Today we know this is somewhat wrong. About 30 to 40 percent of the ancestry of modern Native Americans derives from Ancient North Eurasians, who seem to be most commonly found in the great Eurasian heartland, probably to the east of what we think of today as Europe, but west of the Pacific.

But there’s more. Most of the ancestry of Native American peoples seems to be more like that of East Asians. Today this component extends rather far north, into Korea, Japan, and such. But these are consequences of recent demographic movements. Nichols’ Southeast Asian hypothesis may actually not be off-base, in particular in light of other evidence suggesting admixture with an Australo-Melanesian population.

One of the major issues with the field of ancient DNA and the historical inferences people make is that the theories and models are often quite ad hoc, and emerge in response to the data. But these earlier ideas, informed by linguistics and archaeology, are actually a pretty good source of possible ideas. They may not be constrained by genetics, because we didn’t have that information (aside from mtDNA), but are richly informed by other disciplines.


10 thoughts on “Do the Amerindians descend from Southeast Asians?

  1. You might’ve been the one who recommended Watson’s “The Great Divide” several years ago. I read it once in 2012, and remember him flirting with this idea. IIRC, Watson didn’t draw too much on comparative linguistics, but he claimed that certain mythological motifs across Native America point to a minority coastal Southeast Asian ancestry.

    I kind of dismissed this out of hand, because 1, he associated this with the spread of the Na-Dene languages and haplogroup C (just a sloppy connection), and 2, he believed the connection to be to agricultural Southeast Asia, of which I don’t think there’s any hint in early New World material cultures.

    But what do I know?

  2. The simple answer to your question is “No.” Just look at the distribution of Y chromosome haplogroups. Native America is all Q clades with a minor occurrence of C. There is no Q in SE Asia or Near Oceania. Many people are misinterpreting Skoglund’s finding of a few Onge (and Tianyuan–ancient North China)-like alleles in Amazonia. I’ve asked him to clarify this to prevent further confusion. Note that the new Taino aDNA study does not find this component in the prehistoric Caribbean. There’s a new study out on Thai mtDNA; it seems that the most North Asian and Amerindian-like clades of A, B, C, and D there are the results of recent intrusions from the north.

    For a very different perspective that supports your speculation see Mike Faught’s article in Quaternary International 444(B) 2017 “Where was the PaleoAmerind standstill?”. He also ignores the Y-chromosome data entirely.

  3. Could be, although Mal’ta boy is R and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of Q associated with the ANE component of the intrusive steppe people in Europe. I suppose one could argue that the predominant East Asian ancestral component in Native Americans is SE Asian in the sense that earliest H. sapiens in Asia first migrated east via a southern route and only went north afterward. But given the likely time depth of those movements it would be analogous to calling modern Europeans, Africans. As an aside, genomes show Amerindians are only distantly related to Ainu, ancient Jomon, and ancient Amurians (Devil’s Gate cave). With respect to archaeology, Native Americans descend from eastern Beringians who, at 14,000 cal BP, were using a distinctively NE Asian Yubetsu microblade technology that was not used south of NE China.

  4. yeah, but isn’t R and Q brother clades? mal’ta is actually and outgroup to the ANE group which contributed to *both* native americans and europeans btw last i checked (ie these two groups share more drift than can be explained by descent from mal’ta).

    the situation in asia is very unclear compared to europe because of current dearth of ancient DNA. the ‘east asian’ ancestry in native americans is very generically east asian. the japanese stuff with ainu and jomon is highly non-robust last i checked probably in part because they’re relatively deeply diverged and han chinese have swamped a lot of the structure.

  5. You’re right about Mal’ta; it has not been widely noted that Afontova Gora 3, which is about 6,000 yrs younger, is said to be more closely related to Amerindians than is Mal’ta. To me, that fact also raises doubt about the supposed millennia-long Beringian standstill. A minor aside tossed into the new Taino DNA paper states that maybe Anzick DNA does not indicate a long standstill. The most common mtDNA haplogroup in ancient Jomon samples is N9b; although its date of origin is estimated as ca. 22,000 cal BP, this haplogroup is absent from both ancient and modern Native American populations. I will readily admit to confusion about the geographic origins of P, R, and Q; last I read they were derived from K, which is supposed to have SE Asian origin (obviously, without any ancient DNA to back this up).

  6. Yes:
    Improved phylogenetic resolution and rapid
    diversification of Y-chromosome haplogroup K-M526
    in Southeast Asia

    Tatiana M Karafet, Fernando L Mendez, Herawati Sudoyo, J Stephen Lansing and Michael F Hammer

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