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BBC Science reporter Toby Murcott
"Migrants took culture, artefacts and at least one of their viruses"
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Monday, 29 November, 1999, 22:51 GMT
Viral clue to American settlers
Many mummies have been discovered in Northern Chile Many mummies have been discovered in Northern Chile

Ancient inhabitants of the Andean mountains were infected with the same virus as modern-day Japanese people, suggesting travellers from Asia colonised South America thousands of years ago.

This unusual form of archaeology was carried out by analysing DNA samples taken from the bone marrow of 104 mummies found in Northern Chile.

The mummies are believed to be over 1,000 years old and could be as much as 1,500 years old. Two virus samples, from San Pedro de Atacama, provided useful DNA fragments up to 159 base pairs in length.

Invasion theories

Migration Map
Kazuo Tajima and his colleagues from the Aichi Cancer Centre Research Institute in Nagoya, Japan, found that fragments were very similar to virus samples taken from living Chilean and Japanese people.

This evidence, published in Nature Medicine, adds weight to existing theories that Mongoloid people invaded South America 20,000 years ago, long before the Spanish invaders brought a variety of different infectious diseases to the region.

Caribbrean population

It also discounts the possibility that the virus was introduced during the European colonisation, 500 years ago.

The virus is associated with adult T-cell leukaemia and other diseases which are today clustered mainly in southwestern Japan and in South America. The new work provides an explanation for the select distribution of the virus but has yet to explain why there is a small population in the Caribbean which also carries it.

The researchers write: "Analysis of these ancient viral sequences could be a useful tool for studying the history of human retroviral infection, as well as human prehistoric migration."

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See also:
08 Apr 99 |  Sci/Tech
'Perfect' mummies found high in Andes
16 Apr 99 |  Sci/Tech
Mountain mummy is baby
26 Aug 99 |  Sci/Tech
'First Americans were Australian'
29 Oct 99 |  Medical notes
Leukaemia: Medical notes
17 Aug 99 |  Health
Child leukaemia linked to infection

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