A leading Russian geneticist claims he has taken a giant step toward identifying the precise origin of native Americans, based on his genetic studies of the Tuvan people in Siberia.
Ilya Zakharov, deputy director of Moscow's Vavilov Institute of General Genetics, says an expedition he led last year proved a DNA link between American Indians and the Ak-Dovurak region 2,100 miles southeast of Moscow.
The idea of a Siberian connection is not new. But Dr. Zakharov says he has nailed it down.
"This is a big breakthrough," he told the Monitor. "We had examined a lot of populations before - and by pure chance the results proved it was the Tuvans."
He says he believes DNA matches in two neighboring regions may be even greater.
Tuva today is one of Russia's poorest and most mysterious regions, with ancient cultural traditions that include shamanism. The area, bridging Siberia's huge Taiga Forest and the steppes, or plains, lies north of Mongolia.
The Tuvans are mainly Turkic-speaking nomadic pastoralists who herd camels, yaks, sheep, goats, and reindeer. Tuva formed part of the Chinese empire in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Scientists have long established that some 30,000 to 40,000 years ago people of some Asian roots migrated across the ice sheets of Siberia's Bering Strait to Alaska, probably in pursuit of animals such as woolly mammoths. Some recent reports have pointed to genetic links between indigenous peoples of the Pacific Rim and Siberians.
Best DNA matches yet
Previously geneticists speculated that America's first inhabitants, numbering perhaps no more than 5,000 people, originally came from Northern China or Mongolia.
But Zakharov says his team was able to greatly narrow the focus with hair samples taken from about 430 Tuvans. DNA data from the hair roots was analyzed and then compared with that of Eskimos and Amerindian people including the Navajo and Apache.
What Zakharov found was that the Amerindian DNA makeup exactly matched the Tuvans - by 72 percent of one group of 30 samples and 69 percent of another group of 300.
"This [represents] the highest frequencies of Amerindian DNA types ever found," he says. "Several years ago some American, Russian, and Mongolian scientists investigated Mongolian and Chinese populations. The frequency of the same DNA types was nearer to 45 percent."
Lack of funding
The geneticist now wants to look at the DNA makeup of people from the Khakassia and Altai regions, which border on Tuva. These people are also Turkic speaking, and may even have a higher DNA match with Amerindians, he believes.
His problem, however, is that of many scientists in financially strapped Russia - money. The paint on the genetics center's wall is peeling. Broken chairs line the corridors. Zakharov looks puzzled when asked for his e-mail address; such amenities are beyond budget.
His hope is that Italian, American, and Brazilian scientists who contacted him after reading about his findings will pick up the ball.
Zakharov and his group posted a summary of the Tuva studies in a recent issue of The American Journal of Human Genetics.
"I think this discovery is fascinating, but I have no grants to continue this project," he laments.
In the meantime, his claims were welcomed by Tuva officials, who appeared amused to imagine hereditary links, however tenuous, with the US.
"It was a total surprise," says Orlan Cholbeney, head of the Tuva Republic mission in Moscow. "If we have a mutual past, then we hope it will help promote cooperation with the Americans."