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Genetic Continuity Study Backs Up Oral Histories

A new study shows genetic links between skeletons found in Alaska and British Columbia and Indigenous Peoples living there today, backing up oral histories.

A new scientific report has shown genetic links between ancient skeletons found in Alaska and British Columbia and the Indigenous Peoples who live in the area today. According to co-author Rosita Worl, a member of the Tlingit nation and president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute, the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on April 4 shows that “our ancestral lineage stems from the first initial peopling of the region” and that “science is corroborating our oral histories.”

The report, “Ancient Individuals From the North American Northwest Coast Reveal 10,000 Years of Regional Genetic Continuity,” examined the remains of Shuká Káa (“Man Ahead of Us” in Tlingit), a 10,300-year-old individual unearthed in 1996 from the On Your Knees Cave in Prince of Wales Island, Alaska. The scientists discovered that Shuká Káa was closely related to three other ancient individuals from British Columbia, 939, 443 and 302 (unfortunately they are only known by their catalogue numbers). 939, a 6,075 year-old skeleton found on Lucy Island, and 302 (2,500 years-old) and 443 (1,750 years-old), unearthed near Prince Rupert Harbor, were in turn found to be closely related to the Haida, Nisga´a, Tlingit, and Tsimshian tribes living in the region today.


The study’s examination of both mitochondrial DNA and nuclear DNA led to the revelation of complex relationships between all the ancient skeletons and modern Indians. Lead author John Lindo, of the Department of Human Genetics, University of Chicago, explained that “Mitochondrial DNA just traces the maternal line – your mother’s mother’s lineage – so, you’re missing information about all of these other ancestors. We wanted to analyze the nuclear genome so we could get a better assessment of the population history of this region.” Both Shuká Káa and 939 belong to the mtDNA (mitochondrial) haplogroup D4h3a, as does the 12,500-year-old Anzick Child, unearthed in Montana in 1968, yet most modern indigenous people on the Alaskan Coast do not. On the other hand Shuká Káa exhibits a close nuclear DNA relationship with 302 and 443, both of whom belong to mtDNA haplogroup A2, as do many Northwest Coast Indians.

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The study concludes that, “Shuká Káa was part of a population closely related to the ancestors that gave rise to the current populations of the northern Northwest Coast.” On the other hand the scientists did not find a close relationship between these groups of skeletons and Kennewick Man, an 8,500-year-old person unearthed from the banks of the Columbia River in Washington state. This adds a new element in attempting to understand the past migrations of ancient Indians. As Ripan S. Malhi of the Department of Anthropology, University of Illinois and co-lead author notes: “The data suggest that there were multiple genetic lineages in the Americas from at least 10,300 years ago.”

The discovery of a continuous 10,000-year relationship between ancient and modern Indians has added a new factor in the legal debate over unearthing and reburying indigenous remains. In this particular case a remarkable cooperation ensued between the scientists and the Alaska Natives. Dr. Worl did not see a conflict between science and Native traditions: “We supported DNA testing of Shuká Káa because we believed science ultimately would agree with what our oral traditions have always said – that we have lived in southeast Alaska since time immemorial.”

In 1996, in the case of Kennewick Man, a legal battle ensued between the scientists and the federal government (enforcing laws that protect Indian grave sites) over whether Kennewick Man should be reburied. The government ultimately lost because it could not be proven that Kennewick Man was an Indian. Back then extracting DNA from skeletons was almost impossible, but in 2015, his DNA was able to be sequenced and in a study published in Nature the debate was settled. The report, “The Ancestry and Affiliations of Kennewick Man,” found that not only was he more closely related to Indians than any other population, but he was likely an ancestor of, among other tribes, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, a tribe that had claimed him as their own.

The study led Congress to pass legislation, signed on December 19, 2016 by President Obama, that required Kennewick Man, now known as the Ancient One, to be turned over to the tribes and reburied. On February 18, 2017, in a ceremony led by the members of the Umatilla, Yakama, Nez Perce, Colville tribes and the Wanupum Band of Columbia River Indians, the Ancient One was laid to rest.