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The four eves of the Americas.

This is the tale of beginnings. One tiny clue buried deep within the cells of the body has finally unlocked a thousand-year-old story. According to scientists at Emory University in the United States, four women who crossed the Bering Straits between 15,000 and 30,000 years ago engendered the entire New World.

The peopling of the Americas has long been a subject of heated disagreement among anthropologists and arachaelogists, and in recent years fierce academic battles have raged over who settled the New World and when they arrived. Even linguists have added their voices to the argumentative din, most recently claiming that almost all the native tongues of the Americas have a single common ancestor.

But this latest startling scenario of the American Genesis comes from an even less likely group--biochemists and geneticists, who are more interested in tracking hereditary diseases than settling old arguments about the human discovery of South and North America. Nonetheless, by looking at submicroscopic strands of protein inside human cells, they have peered thousands of years into our family past and presented us with the great-great-ever-so-great-grandmothers of the New World.

Biochemist Douglas C. Wallace and his co-workers study the structure of DNA in mitochondira, which resemble bacteria and play a role inside living cells similar to the role organs play inside the body. Mitochondria are unusual because they have their own genetic code distinct from the cells they inhabit. Each person inherits this mitochondrial DNA only from his or her mother. As a result, the genes of mitochondrial DNA are a record of maternal ancestry, as well as a key to tracing rare diseases inherited only through the maternal line.

As part of their ongoing studies, the Emory researchers examined blood samples of three peoples vastly separated by distance, culture and language: the Ticuna of South America, the Maya of Central America and the Pima of North America. They compared the mitochondrial DNA patterns in the three populations and made an astonishing discovery. The Ticuna, Maya and Pima share four rare mitochondrial DNA patterns that are only found outside the Americas in a few Asian populations. The researchers concluded that most indigenous peoples of the Americas (except such latecomers as the Aleut, Inuit, Navajo and Apache) all descended from just four women, who themslves came from Asia.

The irony of this discovery is that it was almost an accident--a byproduct of research geared to help people cope with the grim realities of inherited diseases. Uncovering the "Four Eves of the Americas" was an interesting development, but more an arcane curiosity than the practical focus of the Emory research.

But even abstract and accidental scientific findings can stimulate the human imagination. Pinpointing the fore-mothers of the Americas provides the longest family tree for which we have scientific evidence. The claim that "we are all brothers under the skin" takes on a literal meaning for the majority of today's New World inhabitants who claim at least partial indigenous ancestry. "Cousins" may be closer to the truth, but the point is inescapable: a blood relation ties the native peoples of the Hemisphere into one vast, farflung family. Back in 1491, most of the 100 million people living between Tierra del Fuego and Hudson Bay were distant relatives.

Today our cities teem with overpopulation, our forests are disappearing, and we have tamed the land with highways from Patagonia to Alaska. It is hard to imagine a time when half the earth--this Hemisphere we call home--was a vast and unpeopled wilderness. But our foremothers entered the fringe of a kind of Eden, an immense preserve of flora and fauna from the edges of the northern ice sheet to the edges of the southern glaciers. These women could not have known they were pioneers in one of the greatest adventures in the history of humankind--a diffusion of people across two continents that would take their descendents thousands of years to complete.

But the story of the Four Eves goes beyond history. It is a tale encripted in the genetic code, a codice of human heritage undiscovered and untold for thousands of years until science found a way to put it into words.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon are freelance writers living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Organization of American States
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:theory that four women who crossed the Bering Straits 15,000 to 30,000 years ago engendered the entire new world
Author:Harris, Patricia Roberts; Lyon, David
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:May 1, 1991
Words:704
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