Three different genetic studies were released on Thursday that indicate the migration of people to North and South America is far more complex than we thought. We think of migration in the Americas as a slow movement of people from the Bering Strait going south until both continents were populated. But over those thousands of years, distinct populations of people would swiftly move to a far off new land, in any direction. In some of these instances, their genes would disappear, and in others they are found in the current population. One of the studies, led by anthropologist John Lindo from Emory University, took a look at the differences between the people who settled in the Andes mountains and those who stayed at lower elevations. It only took a relatively short amount of time (thousands of years) for the highlanders to evolve different ways of coping with their environment.
Archaeological evidence suggests this group began to occupy the Andean Highlands around 12,000 years ago. The new genetic evidence shows what happened as a result. Similar to the ancient inhabitants of the Tibetan Plateau, this group quickly adapted to the high altitude extremes, gaining resistance to cold temperatures, low oxygen, and UV radiation.
Fascinatingly, the Andean highlanders also acquired the ability to digest potatoes, a domesticated crop derived from wild tubers.
“We see a different configuration of a gene associated with starch digestion in the small intestine—MGAM—in the agricultural ancient Andean genome samples, but not in hunter-gatherers down the coast,” said Lindo in a statement. “It suggests a sort of co-evolution between an agricultural crop and human beings.”
So we have to thank the Andean highlanders, because otherwise, French fries wouldn't be a thing today. Read an overview of all three studies at Gizmodo.
Pictured: Lake Titicaca, at an elevation of 12,507 feet.