Native Village 
Youth and Education News

September 2013

Breakthrough DNA study links B.C. woman and 5,500-year-old “grandmother”
The scientific achievement is also seen to have significant implications for First Nations’ land claims and treaty rights
Condensed by Native Village

Members of the Metlakatla First Nation community near Prince Rupert, B.C., collaborated with an international team of researchers in a genetic study of aboriginal peoples — both present-day and prehistoric — on Canada's northwest coast.

A groundbreaking genetic study has traced a direct DNA link between:

The 5,500-year-old remains of an aboriginal woman found on a British Columbia island
A second set of ancient female bones from a nearby 2,500-year-old site, and
 — most stunningly —
A living Tsimshian woman from the Metlakatla First Nation who lives near both ancient burial sites. 

Both prehistoric burials were along the North Coast near Prince Rupert.

A team of U.S. and Canadian anthropologists used new techniques that analyze mitochondrial genomes and reconstruct their descent. The findings offer new evidence of a people’s enduring occupation of a geographical area.

The new techniques may also provide significant evidence for First Nations’ land claims and treaty rights

“Having a DNA link showing direct maternal ancestry dating back at least 5,000 years is huge as far as helping the Metlakatla prove that this territory was theirs over the millennia,” said First Nations archeologist, Barbara Petzelt.

“I believe this is really a unique collaboration,” said Joycelynn Mitchell, a Metlakatla treaty official and researcher. “It’s very exciting to be able to have scientific proof that corroborates what our ancestors have been telling us for generations. It’s very amazing how fast technology is moving to be able to prove this kind of link with our past.”

The study also identified what might be be “extinct” genetic lines from two other sets of remains from Alaska and B.C. Those remains date from 10,300 and 6,000 years ago. No living person is known to share the DNA signature found in both of those individuals.

A third set of findings shows that three residents from West Coast aboriginal communities share an ancestral connection with an individual whose 5,000-year-old remains were found on Dodge Island.

“This is the beginning of the golden era for ancient DNA research because we can do so much now that we couldn’t do a few years ago because of advances in sequencing technologies,” said Ripan Malhi, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois. “We’re just starting to get an idea of the mitogenomic diversity in the Americas, in the living individuals as well as the ancient individuals.”

Malhi said it was “pretty surprising” when a clear genetic link was found between the 5,500-year-old female remains found on Lucy Island, B.C. and the 2,500-year-old individual from Dodge Island.

That surprise led to elation when scientists learned that the prehistoric individuals had “the exact same mitogenome of a living Tsimshian person.”  The discovery that was “especially surprising,” said Malhi, “since it’s a rare lineage. In my mind, I expect that lots of these rare lineages would have gone extinct after European contact and colonization because of the high mortality that was associated with contact.”

But Malhi said genetic findings are only part of the evidence illuminating a First Nation’s connection to its past. Oral histories, linguistic studies and archeological excavations remain key to reconstructing the stories of historic and prehistoric communities.

“Archaeology is one important source of information about the past, and oral traditions give us a lot of verifiable information about the past cultural events and patterns,” agreed David Archer, an anthropology professor at Northwest Community College in Prince Rupert. “But the genetic information is something that is immediately recognizable. If somebody is told that their DNA links to somebody who was present 2,500 years ago and also to someone who was present 5,500 years ago, you can summarize that in a sentence and it’s very easily understood and it’s exciting.”

Researchers from China and Washington State University were also involved in the study.

The study was published in the Public Library of Science journal, PLOS ONE.

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