Evolving in Isolation
The late skulls found in Baja California are similar to Luzia and the Paleoamerican skulls found in South America. Their craniums are characterized by long and narrow vaults, with faces short and low in relation to the neurocranium.
"Skeletal studies demonstrate that skeletal remains do not fit the Mongoloid set of traits that is determinant of the modern Amerindian morphology," said González-José. "Our results demonstrate that not only are some early remains not Mongoloid, but also some modern groups, like those of Baja California."
The study suggests that Baja California was one of many isolated pockets throughout the Americas were Paleoamerican traits survived. The Paleoamericans might have split at one point, with one group going down to Baja California. This group may not have come in contact with Paleoindians for millennia.
Some experts, however, find it difficult to believe that such a population could have evolved in isolation.
"I don't doubt there's skeletal diversity and that it's probably coming out of old world Asia," said Tom Dillehay, an archeologist at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, who commented on the study in a separate article for Nature. "But I am very skeptical of a population, particularly close to a coastline, that could have been isolated for more than 10,000 years."
The identity of the first Americans is an emotive issue for American Indians, who believe their ancestors were the first to inhabit the Americas.
Controversy erupted after skeletal remains were found in Kennewick, Washington, in 1996. This skeleton, estimated to be 9,000 years old, had a long cranium and narrow facefeatures typical of people from Europe, the Near East or Indiarather than the wide cheekbones and rounder skull of an American Indian.
A coalition of Indian tribes, however, said that if Kennewick Man was 9,000 years old, he must be their ancestor, no matter what he looked like. Invoking a U.S. federal law that provides for the return of Native American remains to their living descendants, the tribes demanded a halt to all scientific study and the immediate return of the skeleton for burial in a secret location.
The matter is still stuck in the courts.
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