Girl Mummy Sheds Light on Early American Fate

The 13-year-old girl died during a ritual sacrifice at Mount Llullaillaco, Argentina, 500 years ago.

DNA from 92 pre-Columbian people, including a well-preserved mummy of a girl who was sacrificed 500 years ago, shed light on who the first Native Americans were, what their initial migration path was, and what might have happened to certain early indigenous populations after Europeans arrived in the Americas.

The research, published in the journal Science Advances, represents the first large-scale study of ancient DNA from early Americans.

The findings suggest that people from Siberia were isolated for around 2400-9000 years in what is now the Bering Land Bridge region (referred to as "Beringia" and including parts of Russia and Alaska) before entering North America 16,000 years ago. They traveled down the Pacific coastline, with some reaching southern Chile 14,600 years ago.

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One of the descendants of these first Native Americans was "La Doncella," The Maiden, a 13-year-old girl who died during a ritual sacrifice at Mount Llullaillaco, Argentina, 500 years ago. Her frozen body, discovered in 1999, was hailed as being one of the best-preserved mummies ever found.

Bastien Llamas, a senior research associate with the University of Adelaide's Australian Center for Ancient DNA (ACAD), told Discovery News that "it seems that her mitochondrial lineage did not survive until today, and that this pattern is not unusual."

Mitochondrial DNA represents maternal genetic lineages. It was the focus of the new study. The fact that such DNA for La Doncella has not yet been found in existing Native Americans suggests that she has no direct living relatives. The researchers also could not make a modern match with the other 91 analyzed pre-Columbian remains.

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Llamas said, "The fact that none of the 92 pre-Columbian mitochondrial lineages survived to today is due to a combination of factors: 1- indigenous populations were fragmented and groups lived isolated from each other; 2- some of these isolated groups became extinct following European contact; 3- many modern genetic lineages have not been surveyed yet."

It is known that many early Native Americans succumbed to diseases brought over by Europeans for which many had evolved no immunity. Such illnesses included syphilis, smallpox, measles, mumps, and the bubonic plague.

Nevertheless, Alan Cooper, who is the director of ACAD, suspects that at least some of the ancient genetic lineages did survive to modern times and will eventually be found in current populations, once enough individuals are analyzed.

A burial associated with the Lima culture (500-700 AD). | Proyecto de Investigacien, Conservacien y Puesta en Valor Huaca Pucllana

While many questions remain on that matter, the new research does provide a clearer view of the earliest migration into the Americas.

Cooper explained that "demographic results show that the Beringian population was relatively small -- probably as few as 10,000 individuals -- which is consistent with what we estimate the resources in Beringia could have sustained."

He continued, "At 16,000 years ago, the population suddenly increased massively, and then kept increasing for several thousand years after that. This population increase could not occur in Beringia because of the limited resources, however, the timing coincides with a slight retreat of coastal glaciers along the northwest Pacific coast, providing a route around the ice sheets and into North America proper."

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Once in the Americas, the groups appear to have splintered off, but generally migrated following the coastline. Some, via multiple generations, remarkably traveled the entire length of North, Central and South America in just 1400 years.

Carles Lalueza-Fox, a scientist at the Spanish National Research Council, told Discovery News that the new study "not only tackles the loss of genetic diversity in the current Amerindian populations as compared to the ancient, but also narrows down the date of a population expansion that is only compatible with a coastal migration route and not with the ice-free corridor that opened thousands of years later."

He suspects that the noted loss of genetic diversity could be tied to the epidemics brought in by Europeans. For example, he said that the survivors might have "had some rare resistance genetic variants," which those who perished lacked. The disease aftermath then might have reduced or eliminated some early Native American lineages in favor of others.

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Alessandro Achilli, an associate professor of genetics at the University of Pavia, additionally agrees with the new findings, which he said corroborate prior estimates. Like Cooper, he hopes that further genetic testing of existing Native Americans will take place to determine how many lineages of the earliest indigenous populations were lost over time.

Regarding La Doncella, Achilli said that once her entire genome is analyzed, "it will provide another important piece in the Native American genetic scenario of South America."

The La Doncella (The Maiden) Incan mummy dates to 500 years ago.

Discovered in 1881 in the Deir el-Bahri Cache above the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut and unwrapped by Gaston Maspero in 1886, this mummy, known as CG 61066, was badly damaged by grave robbers in antiquity. The left arm was broken off at the shoulder, the right arm cut off at the elbow and the right leg severed from the body. The mummy’s name remains uncertain. It was identified as that of King Thutmosis II (reign c. 1493–1479BC) thanks to a wrongly spelled label. However, the inscription appear to have overwritten an earlier sign referring to Thutmosis I. This could indicate the inscription had been changed from Thutmosis I to Thutmosis II, suggesting that the royal mummy CG 61066 is that of Thutmosis I rather than his likely son Thutmosis II.

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Badly damaged by ancient robbers, this mummy had fallen into pieces, the well preserved head broken off, all four limbs detached and the feet severed. The mummy has been identified as that of Thutmosis III, the sixth pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty (reign about 1479–1425 BC) and shares a striking resemblance with Thutmosis II (mummy CG 61066), his purported father. The identification is based on the fact that when it was unearthed, the mummy was lying in a coffin bearing in its interior traces of inscriptions made for Thutmosis III. A linen shroud with a funerary book which certainly belonged to Thutmosis III, was possibly placed there by the embalmers.

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French excavator Victor Loret found the mummy CG61069 in 1898 in the KV35 tomb in the Valley of the Kings. The mummy was lying in a wooden coffin placed into a stone sarcophagus with inscriptions naming Amenhotep II, the seventh pharaoh of the 18th dynasty of Egypt, who ruled between 1428 and 1397BC. A simple label on the mummy's shroud presented the identity of Amenhotep II. Some doubt however remains. The coffin did not give a name and was too large for the mummy. Moreover, the faded hieratic ink inscription could have been easily misread. "With reservations the mummy CG 61069 should be considered as Amenhotep II until proven otherwise," Ruhli and colleagues concluded.

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Found in 1898 in the KV 35 tomb, this damaged mummy -- both feet are broken off and the right leg was ripped off at the knee joint -- shows the face of an extremely emaciated man. The body has been identified as Thutmosis IV, the 8th Pharaoh of the 18th dynasty who ruled between 1397 and 1387 BC, thanks to inscriptions on the chest and coffin correctly spelled and clearly visible. According to the researchers, the identification should be considered reliable.

When it was unwrapped in 1905, this mummy revealed a body in rather bad condition. The head was broken off, most of the soft tissue from the face gone, the right leg was cut away from the trunk, and part of the foot missing. The embalmers taped the mummy together in the attempt to restore a lifelike appearance. Bird bones, a human big toe, and parts of an arm were found inside the body cavity. The genetic profiling determined the mummy was the consort of Queen Tjye and as the genetic father of the mummy from tomb KV 55, thus identifying the body as Amenhotep III.

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The identity of these exceptionally well-preserved mummies is certain, since the coffins and funerary objects bear their names and status. Genetic testing recognized Yuya and Thuya as King Tut's great-grandparents.

This nameless and naked mummy was found in 1898 in the cachette KV 35 together with the so-called Younger Lady and a teenage boy. The regal quality of mummification and her bent arm recognized her as a queen; speculations were made to identify her as of Tjye, Nefertiti, or Hatshepsut. In view of the genetic test, where she was proved to be the daughter of Yuya and Thuya, the identification as Tjye, wife of King Amenhotep III, appears the most realistic one.

This body, consisting of a completely disarticulated skeleton with few missing part and a damaged skull, was identified as Akhenaton although some argued he could have been the elusive pharaoh Smenkhkare. In the Tutankhamun Family Project he was proved with molecular genetics to be a direct descendant of the "Elder Lady" (Queen Tiye) and mummy CG 61074, commonly regarded as "Amenhotep III," and this would indicate that he was the heretic king Akhenaton. The KV 55 mummy was also determined to be the genetic father of Tutankhamun. Inscriptions support the genetics. Not only the body found in KV55 bore golden bands with the name Akhenaton, but inscriptions from Tell el-Amarna, the city of the heretic king, describe King Tut as the son of Akhenaton.

Found by Victor Loret in 1898 in tomb KV35, the mummy was considered to be an unknown royal family member of Amenhotep II, because she was found in his burial. In 1999, Marianne Luban suggested the mummy might be Queen Nefertiti, based on her profile resemblance with the famous Berlin bust. In 2004 Egyptologist Joann Fletcher also proposed the mummy is Nefertiti, relying her theory on portable x-ray, forensic face reconstruction and resemblance between art and mummy. Her identification raised much controversy. The DNA analysis revealed the mummy is the mother of Tutankhamun, but did not offer an identity. In their meta-analysis, Rühli and colleagues also present her as Queen Nefertiti. "We can't be fully certain of her identity, however inscriptional evidence and facial resemblance with Tutankhamun as seen in CT scans, strongly suggests the mummy belongs to Nefertiti," Rühli said. "Nefertiti is labelled in inscriptions to be Tutankhamun's mother and indeed the mummy known as the Younger Lady is genetically suggested to be King Tut's mother," he added.