What if you could trace your ancestry back to around 5,000 years ago? Researchers were able to do just that in a fascinating new DNA study, which found a direct genetic link between the ancient remains of Native Americans and their living relatives.

"It's very exciting to be able to have scientific proof that corroborates what our ancestors have been telling us for generations," study co-author and participant Joycelynn Mitchell said in a written statement. "It's very amazing how fast technology is moving to be able to prove this kind of link with our past."

In the study, U.S. and Canadian researchers used mitochondrial genome (mitogenome) sequencing to analyze DNA inherited exclusively through mothers. Looking at the mitogenome is cheap, easier to sequence than nuclear DNA, and skirts around the problem that European men mixed with Native American women.

The researchers collected DNA from 60 living indigenous people belonging to the Tsimshian, Haida and Nisga'a tribes in the northern coast of British Columbia. The tribes' oral histories and archaeological sites indicate they have lived in the region for generations, which made them good candidates for tracing their lineage back so many years.

Complete mitogenomes were extracted from the remains of four Mid-Holocene individuals found in British Columbia's Lucy Islands and Dodge Island, and then that information was compared to the DNA of the study participants.

What was found? The research team discovered one of the living individuals carried this same "mitogenomic signature" as a young adult female who lived on Dodge Island 2,500 years ago -- which also matched the mitogenome of the remains of a woman who lived in the Lucy Islands 5,500 years ago. Wow.

Three other living participants had mitogenomes that linked back to the remains of another individual found on Dodge Island, who may have lived around 5,000 years ago.

“This is the beginning of the golden era for ancient DNA research because we can do so much now that we couldn't do a few years ago because of advances in sequencing technologies,” study co-author Dr. Ripan Malhi, an anthropology professor at the University of Illinois and Institute for Genomic Biology professor, said in a written statement. “We’re just starting to get an idea of the mitogenomic diversity in the Americas, in the living individuals as well as the ancient individuals.”

The new study was published online on June 3, 2013 in the journal PLoSONE.

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