Until this study, it was believed that the last member of the Beothuk died in 1829.
A recent study has found DNA evidence that an unsuspecting Tennessee man may be the descendant of a Canadian Indigenous group that was long believed to have gone extinct.
The Beothuk were Indigenous to the Canadian island of Newfoundland but after European colonists confiscated their territory in the 1500s, they were exposed to new diseases and pushed inland where they struggled to adapt to their new environment.
The Beothuk were consequently thought to have gone culturally extinct when their last-known member, Shanawdithit, died of tuberculosis in 1829.
But a study published in the journal Genome by genetics researcher Steven Carr in April 2020 found that the DNA samples of Shanawdithit’s uncle, which were used in Carr’s analysis, were “identical” to that of a living person in Tennessee.
“The question was whether those genetic descendants had descendants, and those descendants had descendants,” Carr said, “and whether they persist to the modern times. And the answer from my analysis is, yes they do.”
For years, other Indigenous groups in Newfoundland have claimed to also have a link to the Beothuk people and Carr’s research has shown that this could very well be true.
Carr analyzed the skulls of Shanawdithit’s aunt and uncle, Demasduit and Nonosabasut, as well as the mitochondrial DNA, which is the genetic footprint passed from mothers to children, taken from the archaeological remains of 18 Beothuk individuals. Then he searched for matches in GenBank, a DNA database under the U.S. National Institutes of Health derived from international research projects and commercial DNA testing.
The search produced a hit with a Tennessee man whose mitochondrial DNA matched with Shanawdithit’s uncle. The unidentified man was shocked upon receiving the news of his possible ties to the Beothuk.
“He’s now extremely intrigued and will continue looking for that [First Nations link],” Carr said.
Carr’s research also reexamined a previous genetic study on the Beothuk which concluded that there was no close genetic relationship between First Nations (the earliest people to inhabit the land) and two other Indigenous groups from Newfoundland: the Maritime Archaic and the Palaeoeskimo.
The Maritime Archaic were believed to be the first settlers on the land 8,000 years ago and lived there until they mysteriously disappeared some 3,400 years ago. Meanwhile, the Palaeoeskimo came and occupied the Canadian territory between 3,800 and 1,000 years ago, meaning both these groups overlapped with each other and the Beothuk.
Carr found that although the Beothuk and the Maritime Archaic Indigenous groups did not share similar genomes, they did share ancestry with modern Canadian Ojibwe. According to William Fitzhugh, director of the Arctic Studies Center at the Smithsonian Institution, who was not involved with either study, this means that “their genes can be traced back to ancestral Indian peoples in more geographically central regions [of Canada].”
But Fitzhugh also noted that these studies are limited by their sample sizes. “One of my reactions is how complicated these DNA studies are and how dependent they are on available samples; that the technology of genomic analysis is relatively new and evolving rapidly, perhaps leading to different results,” he cautioned.
Commercial DNA databases are commonly evolving and updating which can alter individual DNA reports. Because of this, Fitzhugh warns that this kind of testing can be inconclusive.
Moreover, it’s important to note how people may take advantage of their possible genetic claim to Indigenous heritage. Indeed, an investigative report by the LA Times found that white business owners had leveraged their unverified Indigenous identities to secure at least $300 million in government contracts intended for minority-owned companies.
Meanwhile, Carr will continue to work with the Mi’kmaq First Nation in Canada, who also shared the island of Newfoundland with the Beothuk, in order to determine whether there are any genetic ties between these two groups as well.
Next, learn about how a Native American Man was found to have the oldest American DNA ever recorded. Then, read about how scientists discovered an ancient Siberian population that could be the ancestors of modern Native Americans.