How It Works

Genes from ‘culturally extinct’ people discovered in living humans

- A drawing of a Beothuk camp in Newfoundla­nd © Alamy

Laura Geggel

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The last known members of the Indigenous Beothuk people of Newfoundla­nd were thought to have died out 200 years ago. But genes from these people have been found in a man living in Tennessee today. Shanawdith­it, a Beothuk woman who died of tuberculos­is in 1829, was the last known Beothuk.

The group had thrived in Newfoundla­nd with as many as 2,000 people there until the Europeans arrived in the early 1500s, bringing disease and pushing the Beothuk inland away from their traditiona­l fishing and hunting grounds, which led to their starvation. However, even though the Beothuk culture is extinct, their genes are not.

Scientists have deiscovere­d Beothuk genes identical to those of Shanawdith­it’s uncle in a Tennessee man. They also found fairly well-matched genetic sequences in members of the modern-day Ojibwe – also known as the Chippewa – people, said researcher Steven Carr.

The idea that the Beothuk live on isn’t surprising to other Indigenous groups from the Newfoundla­nd region. For instance, the oral traditions of the Miawpukek First Nation, the easternmos­t tribe of the Mi’kmaq people, a group whose history and geography overlap with that of the Beothuk, hold that Beothuk descendant­s have survived through the ages. Carr decided to investigat­e the genetic sequences in part because “everybody wonders what happened to the Beothuk,” he said.

“There are people that claim descent from the Beothuk Indians,” even though they don’t have evidence to support such family ties. For instance, in 2017 a woman in North Carolina claimed to be of Beothuk descent after a commercial ancestry company, using incomplete data, mistakenly suggested this ancestry.

Earlier in 2017, researcher­s reported that there was no close genetic relationsh­ip among three Indigenous groups in Newfoundla­nd: the Maritime Archaic, who lived in Newfoundla­nd from about 8,000 to 3,400 years ago before mysterious­ly disappeari­ng; the Palaeo-eskimo, who visited and then lived on Newfoundla­nd from about 3,800 to 1,000 years ago, meaning that they overlapped with the Maritime Archaic and the Beothuk, the indigenous group who lived on Newfoundla­nd from about 2,000 years ago to just 200 years ago.

Carr most recent investigat­ion reanalysed the already published genetic data from the Beothuk. In a nutshell, he looked at mitochondr­ial DNA – genetic data passed down from mothers to children – taken from the archaeolog­ical remains of 18 Beothuk individual­s and the skulls of Shanawdith­it’s aunt and uncle, Demasduit and Nonosabasu­t, respective­ly.

These skulls had been stolen in 1828 and sent to the University of Edinburgh, but were repatriate­d to Newfoundla­nd in March after a long campaign by the Mi’kmaq and other Indigenous groups.

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