DNA decodes the hidden histories of North American Arctic peoples

Humans have inhabited the North American Arctic for 6,000 years, and over the millennia their cultures have evolved. There are two broad cultures that are generally described: Paleo-Eskimo and Neo-Eskimo, which themselves represent many sub-cultures. Early Paleos (3,000 to 800 BCE) lived in tent camps and hunted prey such as caribou and seals with stone tools. Late Paleos (from 800 BCE), who existed in a particularly cold period, advanced in their housing and hunting technologies, as they grew in number. The Paleo-Eskimo era ended suddenly between 1150 and 1350 CE, with the arrival of Neo-Eskimo Thule whale hunters from the Bering Straits.

In a new study published in Science magazine, scientists looked at DNA from living and ancient inhabitants of the North American Arctic and have found that the long-surviving, but now extinct, Paleo-Eskimos were all descended from a single migration. This study moves on from the previous methods of researching the history of these peoples, which relied on cultural artefacts, and seems to settle a long-standing argument about the diversity of cultures seen through the ages. Some proposed that there has been continuity from the first people who settled in the area, all the way up to today’s Inuits, others believe the different cultures to be distinct.

Analysis from more than 150 ancient remains shows that the Paleo-Eskimos are a single genetic lineage, descending from a migration across the Bering Strait from Siberia, 6,000 years ago. The research suggests that identifying cultural changes through tools and other artefacts might not be the best way to study how ancient populations changed.

Today’s Inuits and Native Americans are a line distinct from the Paleo-Eskimos. The ancestors of Inuits overlapped for a while in time with the Paleos, but DNA analysis shows no mixing, which echoes findings from cultural remains. There is uncertainty still as to whether the Paleos simply died out before the Thules (Inuit ancestors) arrived or if their sudden demise 700 years ago was more violent. There is no indication in Inuit legends that there was violence between them and the Paleos, but the sudden loss of a whole peoples in the space of 100-150 years is suspicious.

Answering and raising questions in equal measures, this study is another example of how genetic studies can really can tell stories, and help paint a more detailed picture about what was happening with humans long before records began.

DNA analysis gives insight to the history of ancient peoples of the North American Arctic (image: wikipedia)

DNA analysis gives insight to the history of ancient peoples of the North American Arctic
(image: wikipedia)

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