A Memorial University researcher has identified living persons with DNA sequences identical or nearly identical to Beothuk and Maritime Archaic sequences.
“That indicates those lineages are still in existence – meaning their descendants are in the general population,” said Dr. Steve Carr, a professor of biology in the Faculty of Science.
Initiated by Miawpukek First Nation
The project was initiated by the Miawpukek First Nation (MFN) in Conne River and was conducted after extensive and ongoing discussions with Saqamaw (Chief) Misel Joe, the MFN council and community members. Ethical and research approval were received from Chief Joe and the council.
Two historical Beothuk are Demasduit and Nonosabasut, the uncle of Shanawdithit. One modern person is as closely related to Demasduit as are other ancient members of Demasduit’s genetic “family.”
Another individual from the Great Lakes Ojibwe people is identical to Nonosabasut. The couple’s only direct descendant was an infant son who was murdered shortly before his parents. These modern individuals are cousins of the Beothuk.
In addition, another member of the Ojibwe people is identical to a Maritime Archaic individual, who preceded the Beothuk on the island by several thousand years. His findings have been published in the journal Genome.
Genetic similarity vs. family relationship
The difference between a genetic similarity and a family relationship can be a difficult concept to grasp, says Dr. Carr.
“I have a relative in New York City. My great-grandparent is her great-great-grandparent, so Mara and I are third cousins, once removed. But suppose we have another grandparent in common 10 generations back. A descendant from that 10-fold great-grandparent down another lineage who would be our 10th cousin.”
“If there were no DNA mutations in either branch going back to that 10th-generation grandparent, me and my theoretical 10th cousin would be genetically identical. But it’s also possible that my New York cousin’s grandparent underwent a genetic mutation. So, if we compared our three sequences, I would find that I am genetically more similar to my 10th cousin, even though I am more closely related to my third cousin.”
DNA mutations, or single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), occur naturally and at random.
While databases can identify how different individuals are by counting the number of SNPs in their DNA, these counts can’t say directly how closely related individuals may be.
“If you are identical to somebody, that could mean you have the same mother,” said Dr. Carr. “Or you could share a fifth-generation grandmother and there have been no changes down either side of that lineage. We’d call the first direct descent, and the latter collateral descent, or more simply, grandchildren and cousins.”
While the Beothuk are usually described as culturally extinct, the oral history of the Mi’kmaq, as related by Chief Joe and others, reports that there were friendly relations between the Mi’kmaq and Beothuk and other Indigenous Peoples.
“If those relationships produced a daughter, and that daughter had a daughter, who had a daughter in an unbroken succession, then those mitochondrial DNA sequences would persist to the present time,” he said.
In 2017 Dr. Anna Duggan, now a research scientist with McMaster University’s ancient DNA lab (and a former honours student of Dr. Carr), conducted DNA testing on material from the teeth of Demasduit and Nonosabasut, along with many other Beothuk and Maritime Archaic individuals.
Those mitochondrial DNA sequences were deposited into GenBank, an open database of all publicly available DNA sequences.
“These data are all in the public domain.”
For this current project, Dr. Carr conducted a meta-analysis – querying the database with each of the ancient sequences to search for the most similar modern sequences submitted by other researchers.
“I didn’t generate any new sequences,” he said. “These data are all in the public domain, and I analyzed the combination of ancient and modern data to look for the most closely related individuals. In some cases, we find evidence for modern relatives, in others we don’t. But that may simply mean we haven’t looked hard enough, yet.”
The Miawpukek First Nation received a National Geographic Explorer grant, the first in the province, to expand these comparisons to include modern Mi’kmaq. Dr. Carr is working as consultant to MFN on that research.