Genes show mysterious Paleo-Eskimos survived 4,000 years until sudden demise

Genetics seems to have really come into its own in recent years, shining light on many prehistoric mysteries: Genes show mysterious Paleo-Eskimos survived 4,000 years until sudden demise – The Washington Post.

New genetic research on ancient bones reveals that a prehistoric population of hunters migrated into the high Arctic of North America and Greenland and survived for 4,000 years in almost complete isolation from the rest of humanity. Then, about 700 years ago, they vanished — either victims of genocide or simply out-competed by a new population of hunters with more advanced technology, the research indicates.

This is the tale of the Dorset culture. They were colonizers of a place where no humans had ever been — a harsh world that was rich in animal resources but largely covered in ice and gripped by the long night of the Arctic winter.

Their ancestors came from Siberia. They hunted musk ox, reindeer, seals and caribou. There were only a few thousand of them, living in small bands in what amounted to a geographic cul-de-sac at the top of the world. They had minimal contact with other cultures and they must have liked it that way.

I have to admit to not realizing until now that the Innuit are relatively recent migrants into the arctic (within the last 1000 years), and that another population had once lived there.  This older population sounds like they were pretty strange.

The research looked at the mitochondrial DNA extracted from the bones, teeth and hair of 169 prehistoric individuals, and also took genetic samples from people living today in Siberia, the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, northern Canada and Greenland. The Dorsets were so isolated that they showed signs of inbreeding.

“It’s remarkable that there are so few connections made with Native Americans,” Fitzhugh said. “It seems to be that the combination of the high Arctic geography and the avoidance relationships between the Indian and the PaleoEskimo people contributed to this situation.”

The article notes that some of the finding are controversial.  This appears to a fairly common reaction to the results of genetic studies, but I’m noticing that it’s almost always temporary, and that the findings usually end up being accepted into our understanding of where distinct prehistoric populations came from and what they did.

I saw an older documentary on prehistoric humans available on Amazon this weekend, a large part of which was about the debate on whether modern humans evolved in Africa and subsequently migrated to the rest of the world in the last 100,000 years, or whether modern humans had evolved multi-regionally throughout the world.  I was struck by how obsolete this documentary was, since the debate is now over.  Genetics show the out of Africa theory is the right one, but those findings went through their own period of being controversial.  (It’s not a complete victory, since DNA does show there was some cross breeding between modern humans and Neanderthals.)

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