Colonization Models and Initial Genetic Diversity in the Americas

The mode and tempo of colonization of the Americas established the initial pattern of continental genetic diversity. Despite a long history of study, the process of settlement remains controversial in terms of date, rate, and pattern. While there is agreement that Asia was the source population, several different models have been proposed for the colonization process. A classic model postulates a rapid spread of population ("blitzkrieg") from a small band of hunters entering through the corridor between the continental ice sheets circa 11,000 years B.P. Colonization occurred as a wave of expansion across the land masses of North and South America. An alternative model envisions the original colonists initially limiting settlement to the coastline, using boats, and entering the Americas at an earlier date, circa 13,500 B.P. Range expansion along this linear habitat from North to South America could be rapid without requiring population saturation of entire continental regions. These models have markedly different implications for genetic variation among Native Americans. The blitzkrieg colonization process would have generated multiple founder effects leading to extreme loss of genetic variation. Computer simulation of this model shows nearly complete fixation in 30 generations. Simulation of the coastal model, on the other hand, requires less extreme demographic assumptions and maintains substantial genetic variability after 100 generations. Although with the coastal model continental interiors are occupied less rapidly than with the blitzkrieg model, the coastal model allows earlier entry and rapid expansion to the southern limits of the hemisphere.