DNA deep­ens mys­tery of lost Beothuk peo­ple in New­found­land

The Globe and Mail (Atlantic Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - IVAN SEMENIUK

Inge­borg Marshall still re­mem­bers the day, 18 years ago, when she was pre­sented with a sin­gle strand of hair clipped from Shanawdithit, the last known mem­ber of the Beothuk, the now-van­ished In­dige­nous peo­ple of New­found­land.

The hair had ap­par­ently been passed down for gen­er­a­tions by the fam­ily of a doc­tor who saw Shanawdithit be­fore she died of tu­ber­cu­lo­sis in a St. John’s hospi­tal in 1829. For Ms. Marshall, an an­thro­pol­o­gist and author­ity on the grim his­tory of the Beothuk, the un­usual heir­loom sparked an in­trigu­ing ques­tion: Would it be pos­si­ble to ex­tract DNA from such a sam­ple and de­code the ge­netic his­tory of New­found­land’s pre-Euro­pean in­hab­i­tants?

Ms. Marshall soon learned that a piece of cut hair with­out its root would not pro­vide the in­for­ma­tion she sought. But the lon­grun­ning sci­en­tific quest she em­barked on then has now borne sur­pris­ing fruit.

In a study co-au­thored by Ms. Marshall and pub­lished on Thurs­day in the jour­nal Cur­rent Bi­ol­ogy, re­searchers have, for the first time, man­aged to se­quence DNA re­trieved from the re­mains of sev­eral Beothuk in­di­vid­u­als along with those from an older, pre­his­toric cul­ture that ex­isted in New­found­land thou­sands of years ear­lier.

The re­sults sug­gest the two groups are not closely re­lated. In fact, the Beothuk are so ge­net­i­cally un­like the peo­ple that pre­ceded them that their last com­mon an­ces­tor prob­a­bly lived 10,000 years ago, when hu­mans were first spread­ing across the Amer­i­cas.

“The is­land got pop­u­lated twice – at least – by dis­tinct groups,” said Ana Dug­gan, a post­doc­toral re­searcher at McMaster Univer­sity in Hamilton, who per­formed much of the ge­netic work.

Dr. Dug­gan, who hap­pens to be a New­found­lan­der, added that the study does not ad­dress whether there are any traces of Beothuk an­ces­try in peo­ple liv­ing in the prov­ince to­day, as some have main­tained. And it only pro­vides in­for­ma­tion about the ma­ter­nal line of de­scent of the two peo­ples, be­cause the work was done us­ing mi­to­chon­drial DNA, which is passed down from mother to off­spring.

De­spite th­ese caveats, said Hen­drik Poinar, prin­ci­pal in­ves­ti­ga­tor at the McMaster An­cient DNA Cen­tre and se­nior sci­en­tist on the project, the study hints at a com­plex story un­der­ly­ing the peo­pling of At­lantic Canada.

“It means that the dy­nam­ics of what was go­ing on back then at the fur­thest east­ern edge of the con­ti­nent was way more in­ter­est­ing than the typ­i­cal nar­row vi­sion that we have,” he said.

Based on ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ev­i­dence, a group known as the Mar­itime Ar­chaic peo­ple ap­peared in Labrador about 8,000 years ago, as ice-age glaciers were re­treat­ing. At some point, they crossed over to the is­land of New­found­land, where they left a long record of habi­ta­tion that lasted un­til about 3,200 years ago. It’s at this point that signs of their pres­ence fade from the arche­o­log­i­cal record. Re­searchers spec­u­late that a cool­ing cli­mate made New­found­land less hos­pitable to peo­ple who were, by then, adapted to liv­ing off marine mam­mals and other coastal re­sources.

Over the next 2,000 years or so, the is­land was fre­quented by Pa­leo-Eskimo groups spread­ing south­ward from the Arc­tic. They may have been the “skrael­ings” de­scribed by Norse ex­plor­ers who tried to set­tle on the north­west­ern tip of New­found­land around 1,000 AD.

The Beothuk ap­peared next and they were still there when Euro­peans be­gan settling in New­found­land start­ing in 1630. Dur­ing the cen­turies that fol­lowed, the Beothuk gen­er­ally avoided con­tact with Euro­peans and lost ac­cess to the coastal part of their land­scape, a cru­cial change that is chem­i­cally recorded in their re­mains be­cause it forced them switch to a poorer land-based diet. Clashes with colonists and exposure to Old World dis­eases ef­fec­tively brought about their ex­ter­mi­na­tion within 200 years.

For the ge­netic study, sci­en­tists were able to ob­tain mi­to­chon­drial DNA from the bones and teeth of 74 in­di­vid­u­als, in­clud­ing 19 Beothuk, 53 Mar­itime Ar­chaic and two Pa­leo-Eskimo. The team then tried to un­der­stand how th­ese pop­u­la­tions, sep­a­rated in time, re­lated to one an­other. The an­swer is not at all.

“I didn’t ex­pect that,” said Vaughan Grimes, an ar­chae­ol­o­gist at Memo­rial Univer­sity and a team mem­ber on the study. “I thought there would be more bi­o­log­i­cal re­la­tion­ship between the groups.” In par­tic­u­lar, the re­sults show that the Beothuk were nei­ther di­rect de­scen­dants of the Mar­itime Ar­chaic peo­ple nor close rel­a­tives who re­pop­u­lated the is­land af­ter its first in­hab­i­tants dis­ap­peared.

That leaves open the ques­tion of who the Beothuk were re­lated to, Dr. Grimes said, a ques­tion that will likely only be an­swered with a far more de­tailed and costly study of chro­mo­so­mal DNA from the Beothuk and other First Na­tions groups with liv­ing de­scen­dants in the re­gion.

Such a larger study could have im­pli­ca­tions for fu­ture land claims and for the over­all un­der­stand­ing of the is­land’s pre-Euro­pean his­tory.

Re­searchers were aware of the sen­si­tiv­i­ties re­lated to Beothuk iden­tity and to dis­turb­ing hu­man re­mains. Be­fore the sam­pling be­gan, they sought per­mis­sion from six First Na­tions and Inuit com­mu­ni­ties who cur­rently re­side in New­found­land and Labrador. Last week, Dr. Dug­gan and Dr. Grimes pre­sented their re­sults dur­ing a meet­ing with In­dige­nous com­mu­nity mem­bers held at Memo­rial Univer­sity.

“It was a lit­tle bit of a shock to find out [the Beothuk] were not re­lated to the Mar­itime Ar­chaic,” Chief Mi’sel Joe of the Mi­aw­pukek First Na­tion. Un­til now, he said, the con­ven­tional view has been that all In­dige­nous peo­ples in the re­gion were de­rived from the same an­ces­tral pop­u­la­tion.

He said he would wel­come fur­ther ge­netic stud­ies to see what con­nec­tions to the Beothuk might be dis­cov­ered, in­clud­ing the pos­si­bil­ity, based on oral tra­di­tion, that some Beothuk fled New­found­land as their pop­u­la­tion faced ex­tinc­tion.

Ms. Marshall, now in her 80s, said she is also hop­ing for more fol­low-up stud­ies.

“There is a def­i­nite sad­ness among many peo­ple in New­found­land that we have lost our own orig­i­nal na­tive peo­ple and that this was largely our own do­ing,” she said. “Peo­ple now are ea­ger to re­mem­ber and hon­our the Beothuk.”

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