Unraveling the Genetic History of a First Nations People

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tags: archaeology, DNA, First Nations People, Tsimshian

... From an evolutionary standpoint, it was not long ago that the Tsimshian people of modern-day Alaska and British Columbia were first confronted with European settlers—roughly 175 years, a mere handful of generations out of the Tsimshian’s 6,000-year American history. But that fateful encounter, which introduced smallpox and other alien ailments into their population, decimated the Tsimshian and threatened to compromise their genetic diversity in the years ahead.

This landmark moment in Native American history captured the imagination of John Lindo, a genetic anthropologist at Emory University who delved deep into Tsimshian DNA as lead author on a just-published paperin the American Journal of Human Genetics. Lindo focused his research on the Tsimshian in an effort to understand the genetic dynamics surrounding their population collapse, which could shed light on the experience of many other Native American groups upon first contact with Europeans.

Employing cutting-edge genomic analysis, Lindo and his team compared modern Tsimshian DNA (obtained with consent from Tsimshian residents of Prince Rupert Harbour, Canada) against DNA found in millennia-old ancestral specimens (exhumed under community supervision and housed in the Canadian Museum of History), correcting for the degradation of the ancient DNA over time.

What the researchers learned about the Tsimshian—on both sides of the fateful 19th-century population collapse—adds considerable nuance to the genetic and social history of a prominent First Nations people.

What most surprised researchers was that the population of the ancient Tsimshian people was in decline long before the arrival of Europeans. Slowly and steadily, since their first settlement in modern Canada, the Tsimshian had been decreasing in number, not expanding as one might presume. ...

Read entire article at Smithsonian