A genetic study of the world’s oldest anatomically-modern human, the body of a boy buried 24,000 years ago near Siberia’s Lake Baikal, has revealed that this individual was of European ancestry. This finding is surprising, in that Lake Baikal, the world’s largest freshwater lake, is situated north of modern-day Mongolia, a location quite far east on the Eurasian continent. What is even more surprising is that the DNA of this individual is also found in many Native Americans, half a world away.

The individual that was the subject of the study was a member of the Mal’ta people, a culture that lived during the Upper Paleolithic, between 24,000 and 15,000 years ago, and were named for the village near where archaeologists first found their remains in 1927. Links between the Mal’ta and European Paleolithic groups were suggested by similarities in their art, shelter construction, tools, and especially in the similarities of both groups’ "Venus figurines", sculptures depicting feminine forms.

This study found that between 14 to 38 percent of American Indians have genetic material in common with the ancient Mal’ta people, meaning that their ancestors were a mix of both Asian and European. "That really is a lot," says Professor Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen, who led the genetic study. "It shows us that Europeans and East Asians met and had lots of sex, and that’s what created the Native Americans."

This finding may also help address other mysteries surrounding the origins of Native Americans: Kennewick Man, the 9,500-year-old remains of an individual excavated near Kennewick, Washington, featured a head shape that had more in common with Europeans than with Asians. Also, some American Indian groups also have the mysterious inclusion of a mitochondrial DNA type called haplotype X, that is otherwise only found in European cultures.