Northern Europeans and Native Americans are not more closely related than previously thought

A new press release is circulating on the paper which I blogged a few months ago, Ancient Admixture in Human History. Unlike the paper, the title of the press release is misleading, and unfortunately I notice that people are circulating it, and probably misunderstanding what is going on. Here’s the title and first paragraph:

Native Americans and Northern Europeans More Closely Related Than Previously Thought

Released: 11/30/2012 2:00 PM EST
Source: Genetics Society of America

Newswise — BETHESDA, MD – November 30, 2012 — Using genetic analyses, scientists have discovered that Northern European populations—including British, Scandinavians, French, and some Eastern Europeans—descend from a mixture of two very different ancestral populations, and one of these populations is related to Native Americans. This discovery helps fill gaps in scientific understanding of both Native American and Northern European ancestry, while providing an explanation for some genetic similarities among what would otherwise seem to be very divergent groups. This research was published in the November 2012 issue of the Genetics Society of America’s journal GENETICS

 

The reality is ta Native Americans and Northern Europeans are not more “closely related” genetically than they were before this paper. There has been no great change to standard genetic distance measures or phylogeographic understanding of human genetic variation. A measure of relatedness is to a great extent a summary of historical and genealogical processes, and as such it collapses a great deal of disparate elements together into one description. What the paper in Genetics outlined was the excavation of specific historically contingent processes which result in the summaries of relatedness which we are presented with, whether they be principal component analysis, Fst, or model-based clustering.

What I’m getting at can be easily illustrated by a concrete example. To the left is a 23andMe chromosome 1 “ancestry painting” of two individuals. On the left is me, and the right is a friend. The orange represents “Asian ancestry,” and the blue represents “European” ancestry. We are both ~50% of both ancestral components. This is a correct summary of our ancestry, as far as it goes. But you need some more information. My friend has a Chinese father and a European mother. In contrast, I am South Asian, and the end product of an ancient admixture event. You can’t tell that from a simple recitation of ancestral quanta. But it is clear when you look at the distribution of ancestry on the chromosomes. My components have been mixed and matched by recombination, because there have been many generations between the original admixture and myself. In contrast, my friend has not had any recombination events between his ancestral components, because he is the first generation of that combination.

So what the paper publicized in the press release does is present methods to reconstruct exactly how patterns of relatedness came to be, rather than reiterating well understood patterns of relatedness. With the rise of whole-genome sequencing and more powerful computational resources to reconstruct genealogies we’ll be seeing much more of this to come in the future, so it is important that people are not misled as to the details of the implications.

Source: Discover Magazine – Gene Expression