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Ancient tribe Indigenous peoples of the Americas - Ancestry and origin

North America

The American double continent was colonized by modern Homo sapiens between 25,000 and 12,000 BC. Initially, only Alaska was inhabited, but later, as the continental glacier melted, a corridor opened up that provided access to the North American plain. From there, hunting communities migrated as far as Tierra del Fuego. Apart from the sporadic contacts with the Vikings on Labrador in the 11th century, the development of the Old American cultures was independent of external influences.
According to current knowledge, the settlement took place in three, possibly four waves of immigration:
The first wave arrived from Asia at the end of the last Ice Age around 12,000-11,000 B.C. via the Beringia land bridge in today's Bering Strait or in boats along the coast.

The immigration waves

The migration of people from the West (coming from Siberia) to the East (towards Alaska and inland North America) was not a one-time, temporary event. There is evidence that migrants arrived in 3 main waves:
1. the first push brought people (Paleo-Indians), who moved to the southern tip of South America
2. a second migration surge is responsible for the Indian populations in the northwest and central lowlands of North America. The descendants of those second wave migrants are the Na Dene Indians (Navaho, Apache, etc.).
3 A third wave of migrants arrived in Alaska and official Canada about 10,000 years ago. These were distant ancestors of the Eskimo and Aleutian peoples who settled in the Arctic settlement area but did not venture south.

Anthropological characteristics

The Old Americans show similarities with the Mongoloid populations with regard to their anthropological characteristics. Due to the nature of their teeth, it is considered certain that the ancestors of the Old Americans came from northern China and southern Siberia, where the anthropological characteristics of the northern Mongoloid population are most pronounced. Like the modern Tungus and some Paleo-Asian peoples, the Old Americans are so-called "Sinodonts", i.e. their incisors have a shovel-like shape. In terms of the distribution and concentration of blood groups, however, the Old Americans differ significantly from their Siberian ancestors.
Great uncertainty arose in 1996 when the Kennewick man was found in the US state of Washington. The Kennewick Man is a skeleton dated around 7300 BC (8410 ± 60 uncal. BP), whose features were initially interpreted as "Caucasoid", i.e. European. Later investigations saw comparability with the Ainu, the Native Americans of northern Japan. In 2015, DNA investigations were possible for the first time, showing that the Kennewick man is not particularly related to Europeans or the Ainu, but closest to present-day representatives of West American tribes. The Kennewick man clearly does not support the thesis that thousands of years ago people from Europe also settled on the American continent.

Genetic analyses

The most comprehensive analyses of Native American genetic traits to date were published in 2012: They support the three-phase theory of immigration via the Bering Strait, thus confirming earlier genetic, morphological and linguistic theories.
Genetic analysis can explain the Native American distribution with three waves, the first of which was by far the most significant. It gave rise to almost all the Native American peoples and its distribution fits in with a rapid and direct advance from Siberia via Alaska southwards through the entire continent. A genetic percentage of 10% in the Chippewa falls out of this pattern and is interpreted as an indication of a second wave. After all, the first wave can only explain 57 % of the genetic make-up of the inhabitants of the North American Arctic, so that the third wave is assumed here. These analyses are consistent with earlier linguistic and morphological studies.
In 2014, a member of the Clovis culture from the only known Clovis grave Anzick near Wilsal, Montana could for the first time be assigned to the immigrants from Asia by DNA.
Genetic studies on 92 individuals from the time 8600 to 500 years ago in South America and Mexico in 2016 proved that the coastal group spread from 14,000 BC within 1400 years to Chile. Furthermore it could be shown that the ancestors of the immigrants lost contact with the Siberian population between 23,000 and 16,400 BC at the latest.
Genetic analyses of a Homo sapiens from the Upper Palaeolithic (Paleolithic) with an age of about 24,000 years, whose bones were found at Lake Baikal, allow a classification of the immigrants to America into the populations of Eurasia. According to this, the Native Americans are descended from a population that lived in northern Eurasia and only spread to Western Europe after the separation of the later Americans. The analyses allow the direction of genetic distribution to be clearly determined, so that individual matches of the Native American genome with the DNA of Europeans can be explained.

The Indians

Indians are the inhabitants of pre-Columbian America (before the discovery of America by Columbus in 1492) and their descendants. This designation was given to the ancient Americans by Columbus, who at first considered the land he encountered to be India and accordingly its inhabitants to be Indians.
In contrast to the European nations, historical North America had an enormous variety of very different cultures. The collective term "Indians" therefore feigns a uniformity that has never existed in this way.
The Native Americans of the Northwest Coast are the descendants of those populations that migrated from Siberia to North America with the second wave of migration. The oldest traces of settlement on the northwest coast date back to about 9000 BC. Native Americans lived in the region undisturbed until the second half of the 18th century. Only then did they come into contact with Europeans. Despite their ethnic fragmentation and linguistic diversity, the Native Americans' cultural horizon on the Northwest Coast is relatively uniform. Until modern times, they were hunter-gatherers who lived from fishing, hunting whales and trading in preferred goods (e.g. furs). Native American social and trade contacts in the Northwest region extended over great distances.
When Christopher Columbus travelled America, about 500 Indian ethnic groups with about 175 different languages lived in the area of today's USA. Some of them lived as very small hunter-gatherer groups, others as highly developed agricultural nations, which cannot be compared to the size of European states. At their zenith, their size rarely exceeded 60,000 people. Most groups comprised only a few hundred.
The collapse of the Indian population after contact with whites is unanimously described in the literature as horrific. The consequences were the loss of cultural traditions and ways of life, new political connections, large-scale and extensive population shifts, and finally the loss of the country. The decisive factor was new infectious diseases to which the Indian peoples had no resistance.
Native American languages consist of dozens of distinct language families as well as many isolated languages. There have been several attempts by linguists to group them into superordinate families, none of which is generally accepted.
Writings have only developed Indian cultures in Central America.
After the colonization of America, attitudes towards indigenous languages ranged from neglect to deliberate oppression.

The lost peoples of America

The lost peoples of America can be divided into three categories:
- Peoples and tribal groups with unknown names, whose traces are lost long before the Europeans took over the land;
- People who are known by name and whose folklore is already disintegrating in the pre-Columbian period; these include the Olmecs and Moche, for example;
- Peoples that perished at different periods during modern times, like the Huron or the Powhatan.
In the past centuries, many languages have disappeared, but the peoples who spoke them mostly live on, even if their relatives have assimilated into the majority language of their surroundings and have given up their mother tongue.

The mass decimation of the Native Americans

The total population of the New World before 1492 (arrival of Columbus) is estimated to be a minimum of 8 and a maximum of 145 million people. 55 million is considered a conservative estimate, 70-85 million a more commonly used estimate.
The Europeans' land seizure that began at the beginning of the 16th century had disastrous consequences not only for the elites but also for broad sections of the population of the existing advanced civilizations. Diseases introduced by the Europeans, forced labour, mass executions and the destruction of intact social milieus familiar from the pre-Columbian period resulted in a high mortality rate and a drastic loss of population.
Primarily through democidal measures such as the spread of epidemics, destruction through work (Latin America) and deportation to ecologically precarious habitats, and to a considerable extent (2 to 15 million) also through outright genocide, European settlers reduced the population by 85-95% or 60-80 million people by 1650. The killing rate is estimated to be up to 50% due to the lack of immunisation against diseases of Europeans alone.
Estimates of the number of Native Americans before 1600 vary between 7 and 30 million. Around 1800, there are just 600,000 Native Americans and over 5 million whites. In 1850 there were 400,000 and in 1890 almost 250,000. The democidal decimation by epidemics and the push into ecologically worse areas required the most victims. But also the genocidal slaughtering of men and the subsequent sale of women and children as slaves to Latin America and the Caribbean. After the founding of the USA, deportations to infertile reservations become the most important democidal cause of death. Full-scale genocides with 10,000 to 25,000 victims are also committed (Cheroquee, Cheyenne, Shoshone), but claim far fewer victims than the democidal measures.
Only in the course of the 20th century did a reconciliation of interests take place regarding the recognition of land rights and cultural promotion for the Indian population.

The Native Americans today

Today, a total of about 3.5 to 4 million Native Americans live in North America, many of them on reservations. Only a tiny fraction of the Native Americans still live by their traditional economic methods, and some still combine - voluntarily or by necessity - traditional self-sufficiency strategies with market economy strategies. Most are more or less assimilated into the Euro-American way of life.
In Latin America, on the other hand, there are 65 to 70 million indigenous people, about half of whom live in Mexico and another third in the Andean countries. In Mexico alone, the indigenous population is estimated at 30% of the more than 100 million Mexicans, with mestizos accounting for another 60% of the total population. Today in Latin America - apart from the existence of the narrow white upper class - it is above all the socio-economic contrast between the Mestizos majority and the largely underprivileged Indian minorities that characterizes the ethnic conditions.

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Central America

From about 2500 B.C. onwards, the cultural boom in Central America began, which culminated in the horizon of the earliest civilization in America, the Olmec civilization (about 1200-600 B.C.) on the Gulf Coast.

Of the pre-Columbian civilizations (before 1492) in the highlands of Mexico, those of Teotihuacán (ca. 900-1200 AD) and the Aztecs (12th century - 1519) were the most important.

Irrigation management developed early on in the arid regions, which in turn allowed higher population densities and more complex forms of organisation.


The heartland of the Olmecs was the coastal region on the Gulf of Mexico.

The beginnings of the classical Olmec high culture date back to the 16th century BC. In its early cultural centers of Tlalcozotitlán, San Lorenzo and La Venta, the essential elements already existed, which were later developed further by other peoples such as the Maya, Aztecs, Mixtec, Zapotecs, etc: Monumental architecture with pyramid buildings and ritual platforms, stone sculptures and steles, relief decoration on stone walls, small sculptures (e.g. jade jewellery), writing technology, the beginnings of a calendar system.

The beginnings of the use of writing by the Olmecs date back to the end of the 2nd millennium BC. Writing culture reached its heyday around the middle of the 1st millennium BC. Writing was one of the most important technologies adopted and developed by the Olmecs from the other peoples of Central America. Also basic elements of the Olmec religion were handed down by the Maya and others. This includes, for example, the popularity of the rain god whose cult was widespread until the arrival of the Spanish.

The Olmec civilization flourished until about 400 B.C., but decayed thereafter for reasons as yet unknown. Between 150 B.C. and about 250 A.D. the Olmec civilization experienced a post-flowering period.

The Olmecs had control over an extensive network of trade routes across central Mexico. Thanks to the lively trade traffic, the institutions of the Olmec high culture became known to other ancient Americans. The cultural institutions of the Olmecs thus lived on in various transformations in the other pre-Columbian regional cultures. Their language, however, perished, as did the folklore itself.


The original home of the Maya was in northern Mexico, from where they moved south in prehistoric times. This migratory movement was triggered by the settlement push of the Uto-Aztecs, who began around 2500 BC to push south from the region in the southwest of today's USA. This southern movement affected all sedentary populations in northern Mexico. The Maya found a new home in the highlands of Guatemala. From there they later migrated to the lowlands and settled the entire Yucatan Peninsula. Continuity of settlement in this region can be proven since the early 2nd millennium BC.

In their heyday, the Maya represented a powerful high culture. Mostly one speaks of a Mayan culture; in fact there are many similarities between the different sites from the past - but behind this culture stand different peoples with more or less closely related Mayan languages.

The cultural development of some regional Maya populations reached civilizing levels already in pre-Christian times. The Maya population received important initial impulses for the development of an advanced civilization through the influence of the Olmec civilization, which provided the successor cultures with specialized and refined cultural technologies. These include monumental architecture (including pyramid construction), developed techniques of ceramics production, sculpture and stone carving (e.g. jade), calendaring and the use of writing.

The Maya are famous for growing corn, their mathematics and for their sophisticated calendar, written in Mayan script. This script, which is now largely deciphered, was the only known fully developed writing medium in America until the arrival of the Spanish. Handicrafts (working with stone, ceramics, wood, textiles) and painting were highly developed, metalwork (gold, silver, copper) played a role only late and almost only for ritual purposes, not for tool making. In the cities there were step pyramids up to 75 m high, Maya acropolis, palaces, observatories and ball courts.

The collapse of Mayan society in the 9th/10th century is the subject of a broad and long-lasting research discussion.

Contrary to widespread belief, the Mayan people did not perish: Although the pre-Columbian Mayan elite was exterminated by the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, the majority of the Mayan population survived as work slaves of the big landowners. Today's Maya, however, no longer form a political unit.

Today, around 6.1 million Maya live in Mexico (in the Yucatán, Chiapas and Tabasco) as well as in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, although the Pocomam and Chortí, who originally lived in El Savador, were exterminated in the 20th century in their own culture and language as a result of violent state oppression. Today's Maya religion is a mixture of Christianity and ancient Maya traditions.


As a people with their own profile, the Aztecs appeared in the 13th century. They immigrated from the northwest and high valley of today's Mexico.

The foundation of the capital of the Aztec empire, Tenochtitlán (ruins in the center of today's Mexico City) dates back to 1325. The Aztec empire consolidated into a federation of three tribal groups, which expanded over most of Central and South America when the Europeans arrived. It was an amalgamation of the three cities of Tenochtitlán, Texcoco and Tlacopán, located in the basin of Mexico, whose political and legal systems differed greatly due to old traditions and were therefore not unified. The respective rulers governed their cities and the territories dependent on them independently of each other and only acted together when there was a common interest, for example in conquests. With the rise of the Aztec Triple Alliance to hegemonic power in the 15th and 16th centuries, Classical Nahuatl established itself as the lingua franca in Central Mexico.

The Aztecs knew a pictographic writing (pictograms and ideograms), supplemented by some syllable equivalents based on the Nahuatl pronunciation, with which they recorded e.g. family trees, astronomical data and tribute lists. However, Aztec pictographic writing was not nearly as flexible as Mayan writing.

The Aztec society knew four main classes: nobility (pilli, pl. pipiltin), peasants and craftsmen (macehualli, pl. macehualtin), merchants (pochteca) and slaves (tlatlacotin).

The Aztecs are notorious for their religiously motivated human sacrifices, which they performed in large numbers. However, the significance and extent of Aztec human sacrifices are controversial.

The rivalries within the triple alliance intensified and the alliance was threatened with collapse. The political tensions coincided with the time of the Spanish landing under Hernán Cortés in 1519, when the Spanish conquistadors decimated the social and religious elite of the Aztecs and destroyed their culture with their preculumbian tradition. In the years 1519/20 about 350,000 people were directly genocidally massacred. In Central America as a whole, over 90% of the indigenous population disappeared. In Nicaragua, 99% or almost one million people lose their lives in only 60 years of the 16th century.

In the years following the proclamation of the Viceroyalty of New Spain in 1535, a large part of the native population was converted to Christianity and the Aztec culture gradually disappeared, without however completely extinguishing.

Contrary to erroneous ideas, which have persisted until today, the Aztecs did not perish as a people. Their modern descendants, the Nahuatl, still live in numerous regional groups scattered throughout Central Mexico. This is a group of different individual ethnic groups in several states of Mexico, formerly also in El Salvador and Guatemala (Pipil) and in Nicaragua (Nicarao). About 1.7 million people speak variants of the Nahuatl, which belongs to the uto-Aztec language family. The modern Nahuatl is spoken today by various Nahua ethnic groups, especially in the Mexican states of Puebla, Veracruz, Hidalgo and Guerrero.


Mestizos are the descendants of mixed marriages between European immigrants to America and Old Americans. Today they dominate the anthropological profile of the population of Central and South America. Purely Indian populations have long been minorities in most regions. In the physiognomy of the mestizos, European characteristics predominate. However, there are regions, such as Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay, where Native American characteristics are the determining factor in the outward appearance of the mestizos (facial features, condition of the hair).

Two other anthropological mixed types have also developed in America, namely the mulattos - in the Caribbean and in the northeast of South America (Surinam) - as descendants of Native Americans and black Africans, and the Creoles as descendants of European settlers and members of the Caribbean-negrid population (e.g. in Haiti).

South America

In South America, the culture of Chavin in northern Peru developed since about 1500 B.C. In continuous succession or even at the same time, local cultures developed, such as the Moche culture (200 B.C. - 800 A.D.), the Tiahuanaco culture in the south of Lake Titicaca (1000 B.C. - 1000 A.D.), the Chimú culture (14th-15th century) in Ecuador and northern Peru. The empire of the Incas, which expanded rapidly militarily from the first half of the 15th century onwards, covered the older local cultures and absorbed many of their peculiarities.


Between 300 B.C. and after 600 A.D. the Nazca culture existed about 500 km south of Lima, building irrigation canals.

The plateau of Nazca (about 440 km south of Lima) is famous for its "scratch images", i.e. the lines that sometimes furrow the flat plateau for kilometres, and for the oversized figures whose contours have been scraped out of the ground. The modern observer only gains an overall view of the huge picture field and also of the individual motifs when he looks down from the air. The creators of the pictures were aware that the contours could not be seen when standing on the plane, and they themselves could not see them as such with their own eyes.

The oldest pictures date from the 3rd century BC.


The Moche culture in northern Peru developed in the period between about 100 and 800 AD.

There was no political centre and no cities in the Moche empire. The decentralized administration knew only village-like settlements with dwellings and ceremonial buildings (residences of local aristocrats, temple pyramids). The most important economic form of the Moche was agriculture.

The Moche have become famous for their arts and crafts. Both as metallurgists and as producers of high-quality ceramics, they were incomparable masters. The permissiveness of erotic depictions surprises every modern observer.


Historically, the Inca people around 1200 in the area of Cuzco in southern Peru become comprehensible. Originally, the name "Inca" was associated with a local clan or clan or with the ruling elite; only later was it used as a popular name.

In the middle of the 15th century, the Incas began a systematic policy of conquest, culminating in the creation of the largest territorial state in pre-Columbian America. Finally, around 1500 the imperial borders in the north to Pasto (northern Ecuador) and in the south to Concepción (central Chile). In the west the Pacific coast formed a natural border. In the east, the territory comprised most of Bolivia and extended as far as Argentina.

Despite an urban culture and the well-known stone monuments, the Inca culture was a predominantly peasant civilization, based on agricultural, cultural and ruling techniques, some of which had been developed for generations, in a cultural landscape thousands of years old, and which only allowed a very small, aristocratic ruling elite to enjoy an elaborate urban lifestyle.

The Incas built the city of Machu Picchu in the 15th century at an altitude of 2430 meters on a ridge between the peaks of Huayna Picchu and the mountain of the same name (Machu Picchu) in the Andes. The city comprised 216 stone buildings, located on terraces and connected by a system of stairs. Research today assumes that the city in its heyday could accommodate and provide for up to 1000 people. Various theories have been developed about the sense and purpose of this city. The archaeological findings testify to a largely developed and once fully functional city in which people lived for a long time. It has, for example, a still fully functional water supply and an elaborate rainwater drainage system.

The empire of the Inca was destroyed by the Spanish in 1537. By 1650, the population of South America had decreased by about 14 million from perhaps 18-20 million, using essentially democidal means such as extermination by labor and squeezing on poor land, while genocidal massacres remained the exception.


The Inca society was socially strictly hierarchically structured. At the top was the absolute ruler, the Sapa Inca, whose unrestricted authority was made absolute in an elaborate ceremony. The ruler's dignity was hereditary.


The Inca folklore is connected with the Quechua language. The language of the elite was called "Inca Simi" (language of the nobility), that of the farmers and herdsmen "Runa Simi" (language of the subjects). The language variant of the Inca nobility came out of use with the political disempowerment of their speakers.

The modern Quechua languages (with more than 8.5 million speakers) are related to classical Quechua, but not daughter languages.


The Incas used the knot writing Quipu (Khipu), which only expressed numbers, and the Tocapu patterns, which were woven in textiles and for which it is not yet certain whether it was a writing. For an exact transmission of the information content of a khipu, one was dependent on the spoken word of the message transmitter for additional explanations.

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