Mitochondrial DNA studies of Native Americans: Conceptions and misconceptions of the population prehistory of the Americas


  • Jason A. Eshleman,

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    • Jason A. Eshleman is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Davis, where he completed his doctoral research examining mtDNA extracted from prehistoric California sites. He has coauthored a number of publications examining mtDNA diversity in the New World.

  • Ripan S. Malhi,

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    • Ripan S. Malhi is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Human Genetics at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He has conducted his doctoral research on Native American migrations in the northeastern and southwestern United States with modern mtDNA, as well as an analysis of ancient DNA from the Columbia Plateau. He has recently authored (with Drs. Eshleman and Smith) an analysis of mtDNA diversity across North America

  • David Glenn Smith

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    • David Glenn Smith is a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Davis. He directs research in Native American genetic variation ancient mtDNA analysis as well as non-human primate genetics. Under his direction, the laboratory of molecular anthropology at UC-Davis has been investigating human migrations with ancient DNA from the Great Basin, the Columbia Plateau, the Ohio River Valley, lower Great Lakes, Central California and Central Mexico


A decade ago, the first reviews of the collective mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) data from Native Americans concluded that the Americas were peopled through multiple migrations from different Asian populations beginning more than 30,000 years ago.1 These reports confirmed multiple-wave hypotheses suggested earlier by other sources and rejected the dominant Clovis-first archeological paradigm. Consequently, it appeared that molecular biology had made a significant contribution to the study of American prehistory. As Cann2 comments, the Americas held the greatest promise for genetics to help solve some of the mysteries of prehistoric populations. In particular, mtDNA appeared to offer real potential as a means of better understanding ancient population movements. A decade later, none of the early conclusions remain unequivocal. Nevertheless, in its maturity, the study of Native American mtDNA has produced a volume of reports that still illuminate the nature and timing of the first peopling and postcolonization population movements within the New World.