The remains of an Aboriginal woman found on a B.C. island have a direct DNA link to a Tsimshian woman from the Metlakatla First Nation near Prince Rupert

 A groundbreaking genetic study led by a team of U.S. and Canadian anthropologists 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, located close to both of the prehistoric burials along B.C.’s North Coast near the city of Prince Rupert.

The findings are the first of their kind to be generated using powerful new techniques to analyze the complete mitochondrial genome of the individuals studied, reconstructing a millennia-spanning line of maternal descent and providing remarkable new evidence of a people’s enduring occupation of a specific geographical area.

The scientific achievement is also seen to have significant implications for First Nations’ land claims and treaty rights, giving aboriginal groups a powerful new tool for demonstrating deep-rooted links between the present and hyper-distant past.

“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, a co-author of the study who also served as the chief liaison between scientists — including one of this country’s top physical anthropologists, Jerome Cybulski of the Canadian Museum of Civilization — and the Metlakatla community.

“I believe this is really a unique collaboration,” added Metlakatla treaty official and researcher Joycelynn Mitchell, also a co-author of the study. “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, published this week in the U.S.-based Public Library of Science journal PLOS ONE, also identified what appears to be an “extinct” genetic line represented by two other sets of remains from Alaska and B.C. that date from 10,300 and 6,000 years ago respectively. No living person is known to share the DNA signature that was found in both of those individuals.

In a third set of findings, three current, unidentified residents of West Coast aboriginal communities were all found to share an ancestral connection with an ancient individual whose 5,000-year-old remains were unearthed from Dodge Island, also near Prince Rupert.

“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,” study co-leader Ripan Malhi, an anthropologist and professor of genomic biology at the University of Illinois, said in a research summary. “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 told Postmedia News it was “pretty surprising” when the research team established a clear genetic link between the 5,500-year-old female — whose remains had been excavated from an ancient settlement site on Lucy Island, B.C. — and the 2,500-year-old individual (also from Dodge Island).

That surprise led to elation when the team found that the directly related prehistoric individuals had “the exact same mitogenome of a living Tsimshian person” — a 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” as cultures clashed and the introduction of Old World diseases decimated many New World populations.

Responses to "Groundbreaking genetic study links living First Nation woman to 5,500-year-old ancestor"

  1. Unknown says:

    No surprise but the proof is now there for the members of this FN in BC. Now to find more, of the rest of us Indigenous people proof. Best news eveR!

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