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Frozen Garden of Eden: Research Says the Inuit Came from Alaska’s North Slope

A new paper suggests that all Inuit peoples originally came from the northernmost part of Alaska, in the region known as Alaska’s North Slope.

A new paper published on April 29, 2015 in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology suggests that all Inuit peoples originally came from the northernmost part of Alaska, in the region known as Alaska’s North Slope. The study, entitled “Mitochondrial Diversity of Iñupiat people from the Alaskan North Slope Provides Evidence for the Origins of the Paleo- and Neo-Eskimo Peoples,” sampled the DNA of Inupiat volunteers (in the U.S. they are Inupiat and in Canada they are Inuit) living in northern Alaska. According to lead author M. Geoffrey Hayes, an assistant professor at Northwestern University, their research provides “the first evidence that genetically ties all of the Inupiat and Inuit populations from Alaska, Canada and Greenland back to the Alaskan North Slope.”

The ancestors of the Inuit spread from Alaska eastwards, eventually settling as far away as Greenland. According to current anthropological thought, modern Inuit are believed to be descended from “Neo-Eskimos” or “Young Eskimos” (also known as the Thule people) that spread across the Arctic replacing or intermarrying the Paleo-Eskimos, or “Ancient Eskimos.” Although the timing of this migration is uncertain, it is believed by scientists that the Neo-Eskimos began moving out of Alaska more than 1,000 years ago during the Medieval Warm Period, when the climate in the Arctic was milder, reaching Greenland sometime around 1300 AD.

The term Eskimo, although considered pejorative in Canada, is still widely used in the U.S. to describe the Indigenous Peoples living in the Arctic Circle region of North America. The Eskimo language stock not only encompasses the Inuit language family (of which Inupiat is a subset), but also the Yupik language family. The Yupik are also historically located in Alaska as well as in Siberia. It is generally agreed that the Yupik, like the Inuit, originated in Alaska, but portions of the Yupik then migrated westward into Siberia. The Yupik were not included in this study.

The Eskimo (Inuit and Yupik) languages are closely related to that of the Aleut, but the language super-stock, Eskimo-Aleut, is not known to be related to any other language group. Thus the Eskimo and Aleut are not related to American Indians, but unfortunately they are often grouped together in scientific and government studies, leading to serious confusions.

Not only did this new study provide evidence that the Inuit originated in Alaska and then spread eastward through Canada and into Greenland, but it also found Paleo-Eskimo DNA in the modern Inupiat peoples, indicating that the Inuit are direct descendants from the Ancient Eskimos. “There has never been a clear biological link found in the DNA of the Paleo-Eskimos, the first people to spread from Alaska into the eastern North American arctic, and the DNA of Neo-Eskimos,” but now, Hayes argues, “our study suggests that the Alaskan North Slope serves as the homeland for both of those groups, during two different migrations.”

This is the first genetic study of modern-day Inupiat people and came at the request of Inupiat elders from Barrow, Alaska, who were interested in using scientific methods to learn more about their history. Hayes and a team of scientists extracted DNA from saliva samples given by 151 volunteers living in eight different North Slope communities. The scientists sequenced and analyzed mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down from mother to child with few changes from generation to generation, and found the haplogroups A2a, A2b, D4b1a and D2.

Haplogroups A2a and A2b are common among modern Eskimos, but until this study the haplogroup D2 had only been found in the remains of ancient Paleo-Eskimos. D4b1a is a common haplogroup of the Neo-Eskimos or Thule, the group that came after the Paleo-Eskimos. According to Hayes, the study’s findings fit well with the elders’ oral traditions of Inupiat history.

The origins of the Eskimos and Aleuts are, like the origins of American Indians, shrouded in mystery and the source of much controversy. According to the modern scientific consensus, the progenitors of the Paleo-Eskimos and Aleuts settled in Alaska sometime about 5,500 years ago from Siberia, although this date is now being disputed and there is little evidence that suggests they were originally from Siberia. Up until recently it was presumed that Greenland had been settled by Paleo-Eskimos only about 2,500 years ago, but new archaeological discoveries have shown Paleo-Eskimos have inhabited Greenland for at least 4,500 years and maybe much more.

This new research on Inupiat DNA has provided strong evidence that the earliest Inuit peoples, as well as the Paleo-Eskimos, came from Alaska. Where they came from before then is anyone’s guess.