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article imageAncient DNA shows Inuit were not the first to settle the Arctic

By Karen Graham     Aug 29, 2014 in Science
The first people to enter into North America's Arctic were a very shy people who didn't intermix with their neighbors. More importantly, anthropologists now say that DNA studies show that Inuit and Native Americans are genetically separate from them.
In a study published on Thursday in the journal Science, scientists show that the first people to inhabit the Canadian Arctic around 6,000 years ago weren't the Inuit, but "Paleo-Eskimos" (Pre-Dorset/Saqqaq). They represented a genetically distinct indigenous population from Canada's Inuit.
It is a fascinating study, and one that perhaps answers a question anthropologists have been pondering for years. Who were the first people to inhabit North America? In 1925, an anthropologist, Diamond Jenness was given some odd-looking artifacts from Cape Dorset, Nunavut. They were quite different from Inuit artifacts, and it was speculated the new objects belonged to an even older preceding culture.
Genetic origins of Paleo-Eskimos and Neo-Eskimos.
Genetic origins of Paleo-Eskimos and Neo-Eskimos.
E. Willerslev
Paleo-Eskimos and Thule people
This older cultural group was named the Dorset culture, and along with the Inuit or Thule people, was broken down into four cultural groups: Early Paleo-Eskimos (Pre-Dorset/Saqqaq), Late Paleo-Eskimos (Early Dorset, Middle Dorset), the Late Dorset and the Neo-Eskimo Thule cultures. The new study describes the migration from Siberia of all the Paleo-Eskimos as one migration pulse, independent of the Neo-Eskimo Thule people, the ancestors of modern-day Inuit.
Evolutionary geneticist Eske Willerslev and molecular biologist Maanasa Raghavan, co-authors of the study, are with the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Along with their colleagues, they say they are finally settling the long debate about the Paleo-Eskimos. "Are they actually representing a different indigenous population?”
Crossing over the land-bridge known as Berringa.
Crossing over the land-bridge known as Berringa.
Maple Balls
Using DNA to solve the riddle
The team analysed remains found in the Arctic, and compared those DNA results with the DNA of ancient remains and present day Inuit. There was no match to be found. The archeologists say the Paleo-Eskimos crossed into the Arctic about 5,000 years ago, spreading eastward from Alaska all the way to Greenland. It is further estimated the culture died out about 700 years ago. Willerslev says the extinction seemed to happen about the same time that Inuit were coming into the Arctic.
The group also determined through DNA analysis that the Paleo-Eskimos were not genetically distinct from the now extinct Sadlermiut Inuit, who inhabited three islands, Coats Island, Walrus Island, and Southampton Island in the Hudson Bay. The study says: "The extinct Sadlermiut people from the Hudson Bay region (15th to 19th century CE), considered to be Dorset remnants, are genetically closely related to Thule/Inuit, rather than the Paleo-Eskimos." This backs up genetic research done in 2008 that showed the possibility of the Sadlermiut having remnants of Dorset culture, but dating further back.
It is believed the entire population died as a result of contracting influenza or typhoid from an infected sailor aboard a British whaling vessel that stopped at Cape Low in the fall of 1902. By the winter of 1902-1903, the disease had spread to the entire community and wiped-out the population.
A new generation of Inuit.
A new generation of Inuit.
Arvin Vohra
Inuit storytellers preserved the memory of the Tunit people
Researchers have been perplexed for years at the apparent lack of intermixing of the Inuit and Tunit cultures. Willerslev comments: “Almost in all other cases where we look back in the past and we see people meeting each other, they might be fighting with each other but normally they actually have sex with each other as well. For some reason, this just didn’t happen.”
Willerslev points out that it may have been cultural differences that kept the two groups apart. There is now DNA evidence that the Tunit had very little genetic diversity and more than likely interbred within their own group. This tells researchers that only a small number of the Paleo-Eskimos crossed over into the Arctic in the first place.
What fascinates Willerslev is that the genetic evidence confirms what Inuit folklore has been saying about the Tunit people all along. “I would certainly in the future pay much more attention to oral traditions among indigenous people because they could really guide us into understanding where are the interesting problems to be investigated scientifically,” he said.
Inuit are extremely loyal to their oral traditions, and would rather end a story unfinished if they can't remember some of the details. As for the Tunit, the Inuit look at them with mixed feelings, and it is apparent in their stories about the Tunit. For example, some stories speak of the wisdom of the Tunit, while others talk of their stupidity. The Tunit were a paradox to the Inuit.
It is apparent that the Paleo-Eskimos were a more primitive society than the Thule culture with their more advanced ways of hunting, weapons and tool making. Yet when the Thule migrated into the Canadian Arctic, they were the new kids on the block, while the Tunit knew their way around. So it was natural that they showed some wisdom in getting around in this new environment, yet they knew nothing of bows and arrows and other technological advances.
The Tunit people were able to survive in the Canadian Arctic for almost 4,000 years, but a combination of warming weather and melting ice, along with incursions from North American Indians, Inuit and Europeans with diseases new to the Tunit probably helped to lead to their extinction. Their disappearance is best explained using Inuit traditional tales. After all, it was Inuit ancestors who witnessed the final days of the Tunit.
"The Tunit were strong people, but timid and easily
put to flight. Nothing is told of their lust to kill
Netsilik Inuit, 1923
More about arctic region, Inuit, ancient DNA, Tunit people, oral legend
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