Native Tribes of the Pacific Northwest region of the United States and Canada have oral traditions going back time immemorial, that place them in the region from the beginning. Now a genetic study of ancient skeletons and existing tribes shows that the unwritten history was apparently just so.
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Rosita Worl, president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute in Juneau and a member of the Tlingit tribe, says that the Tlingit and Tsimshian tribes migrated west along British Columbia’s Naas River to the coast, before spreading north and south. Thanks to a fortuitous discovery and unprecedented cooperation between native tribes, archaeologists, and geneticists, scientists were finally given the ability to test that theory.
On Your Knees cave
In 1996, the National Geographic Society sponsored a major paleontological expedition of the On Your Knees Cave in Alaska at the behest of Timothy Heaton, a paleontologist from University of South Dakota. It was Heaton who discovered what would turn out to be 10,000-year-old human bones.
Though the local tribes, the Tlingit and Haida, were initially skeptical of cooperating with the archaeologists, they not only agreed to allow the excavations to continue: 200 members of the Tlingit tribe also volunteered to participate in a genetic sequencing project. The members of the tribe had DNA extracted, for comparison with the DNA of the skeleton found in the cave.
Broadly, the purpose of the study was to answer a major question of American prehistory: Who settled the Americas?
Though the answer did turn out to lie in the genes, the technology had to improve before the question could be answered.
More narrowly, given the oral tradition, the question was begged of whether this was the tribes' ancestor.
The Man Ahead of Us
The initial study was based on mitochondrial DNA from the skeleton, who had been dubbed Shuká Káa – "Man Ahead of Us". The geneticists did not get a positive genetic match between Shuká Káa and the tribe. However, analyzing isotopes from his teeth, they discovered that Shuká Káa ate a marine diet and was, therefore, probably a seafarer.
That, however, was not the end. New and improved methods of genetic sequencing allowed geneticists to revisit the issue. The last of Shuká Káa’s tissue was removed from his molars and compared to DNA from three other ancient, though more recent, skeletons using nuclear DNA sequencing.
One of these remains was teeth of a 6,075-year-old skeleton from Lucy Island in British Columbia (300 kilometers from On Your Knees Cave). Another was a 2,500-year-old skeleton from Prince Rupert Harbor in British Columbia, and the third was a 1,750-year-old skeleton, also from Prince Rupert Harbor.
Unfortunately, Shuká Káa’s DNA was too damaged to sequence his entire genome. However, Ripan Malhi, a molecular anthropologist from University of Illinois, Champaign, and his team were able to sequence enough markers to represent 6% of Shuká Káa’s genome.
This sequence was then compared to the genetic sequences of the three more recent skeletons, and to the DNA of 156 indigenous tribes around the world, including the Tlingit and Tsimshian tribes.
The results confirmed the oral traditions of the tribes local to the Pacific Northwest. The three skeletons from Lucy Island and Prince Rupert Harbor are closely related to the Tlingit and Tsimshian tribes, as well as other tribes indigenous to the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. and Canada.
Shuká Káa was found to be related to tribes from Central and South America, but Malhi cautions that the genetic signal is not statistically strong in this case, and may only be a sign that indigenous tribes in the Americas share a common ancestor.
However, this is not the end of the story. Shuká Káa was also found to be closely related to the three younger skeletons from British Columbia.
To Malhi, this suggests that the stories of the Tlingit and Tsimshian tribes are based on fact. Their ancestors did settle the Pacific Northwest more than 10,000 years ago.
Put otherwise, today's North American tribes descended from the first humans to settle in Northwest America.
It is easy to dismiss oral traditions as mere stories, designed to give people a place in the world, but based on nothing. But this study proves that such stories cannot be so easily dismissed.
One caveat. The fact is that we still do not know who settled North America first, when, or how. In fact, we don't even know for sure what human species did it. Mastodon remains were found in southern California that seem to have been manipulated by some sort of human 130,000 years ago, which is, well, around 115,000 years earlier than humans had been thought to have reached the continent. It's also tens of thousands of years before the migration of Homo sapiens out of Africa that is believed to have populated today's world.