Ancient Skeleton Reveals 10,000-Year Link To Modern Tribes In Pacific Northwest

Many of today's indigenous peoples living in the same regions are descendants of ancient individuals dating to at least 10,300 years ago. Credit: Julie McMahon, University of Illinois

A man by the name of Shuká Káa (Tlingit for “Man Ahead of Us”) has helped fill in an ancient archeological blank thousands of years in the making. As it turns out, the modern-day indigenous peoples in southern Alaska and the western coast of British Columbia are the descendants of the first people to make the region their home more than 10,000 years ago. The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Shuká Káa – now a 10,300-year-old skeleton with only bits of tissue remaining in his molars – was discovered in a cave in southeastern Alaska. The man, who died in his mid-20s, primarily ate a marine diet, including saltwater fish, sea mammals, and shellfish. 

A previous study analyzed the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) of Shuká Káa, but "interestingly, the mitochondrial type that Shuká Káa belonged to was also observed from another ancient skeleton dated to about 6,000 years ago," said co-author Dr Brian Kemp from the University of Oklahoma in a statement. "It seems to disappear after that."

Once the team's tracks stopped there, they turned to nuclear DNA – a much more comprehensive tool to tease apart a person’s ancestry. The researchers extracted nuclear DNA from him and the remains of three more skeletons from the British Columbia coast dating back between 6,075 and 1,750 years ago. With this information, the researchers compared the genetic markers of Shuká Káa and the three skeletons to more than 150 current indigenous groups. 

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They found that the remains from Lucy Island and the Prince Rupert harbor of British Columbia were related to the Tsimshian, Tlingit, Nisga’a, and Haida tribes. Shuká Káa’s mtDNA and nuclear DNA suggest a kinship with the younger skeletons, however, he is not closely related to the Kennewick Man from Washington state or the Anzick child from Montana. 

"The data suggest that there were multiple genetic lineages in the Americas from at least 10,300 years ago," said lead author Ripan Malhi of the University of Illinois. 

In an attempt to weave it all together, Malhi’s team propose that Shuká Káa is ancestral to all the groups. In fact, a few of the descendants that still live in the same region today are authors on the study. Co-author Rosita Worl, for example, is a member of the Tlingit in Klukwan, Alaska. These indigenous people are guided by a matrilineal kinship system, where children are born into their mother’s clan with property passing through the mother’s line.

"The initial analysis showed the young man was native, and now further studies are showing that our ancestral lineage stems from the first initial peopling of the region," said Worl. "Science is corroborating our oral histories."

Image in text: Timothy H. Heaton at the entrance of On Your Knees Cave -– the cave in southeastern Alaska where Shuká Káa was found. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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