September 07, 2004

Did the First Americans Come From, Er, Australia?

(Top Stories - Reuters)

EXETER, England (Reuters) - Anthropologists stepped into a hornets' nest on Monday, revealing research that suggests the original inhabitants of America may in fact have come from what is now known as Australia.

The claim will be extremely unwelcome to today's native Americans who came overland from Siberia and say they were there first.

But Silvia Gonzalez from John Moores University in Liverpool said skeletal evidence pointed strongly to this unpalatable truth and hinted that recovered DNA would corroborate it.

"This is very contentious," Gonzalez, a Mexican, said with a smile at the annual meeting of the British association for the Advancement of Science. "They (native Americans) cannot claim to have been the first people there."

She said there was very strong evidence that the first migration came from Australia via Japan and Polynesia and down the Pacific Coast of America.

Skulls of a people with distinctively long and narrow heads discovered in Mexico and California predated by several thousand years the more rounded features of the skulls of native Americans.

One particularly well preserved skull of a long-face woman had been carbon dated to 12,700 years ago, whereas the oldest accurately dated native American skull was only about 9,000 years old.

"We have extracted her DNA. It is going to be a bomb," she said, declining to give details but adding that the tests carried out so far were being replicated to make sure they were accurate.

She said there were tales from Spanish missionaries of an isolated coastal community of long-face people in Baja California of a completely different race and rituals from other communities in America at the time.

These last survivors were wiped out by diseases imported by the Spanish conquerors, Gonzalez said.

The research is one of 11 different projects in America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East being funded over a four-year period by Britain's Natural Environment Research Council.

The projects, focusing on diet, dating and dispersal of people down the millennia in the face of climate change, aim to rewrite anthropology.

"We want to make headlines from heads," said Professor Clive Gamble of Southampton university. "DNA will give us a completely new map of the world and how we peopled it."


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