The discovery of an ancient bear in an Alaskan cave leads to an important human discovery

The discovery of an ancient bear in an Alaskan cave led to an important human discovery

The discovery of an ancient bear in an Alaskan cave led to an important human discovery

The bones the researchers found belonged to an ancient person named Tatok Yik Yes Shawat (Cave Girl) by the Wrangel Cooperative Association. Credit: University at Buffalo

The first people to live in the Americas migrated from Siberia over the Bering Land Bridge 20,000 years ago. Some made their way south to Tierra del Fuego, at the tip of South America. Others settled in areas very close to their place of origin where their descendants still thrive today.

“A Paleogenome from a Holocene Individual Supports Genetic Continuity in Southeast Alaska” published in the journal iScienceCharlotte Lindquist, an evolutionary biologist at the University at Buffalo, and colleagues use ancient genetic data analysis to show that some modern Alaskan natives are living where their ancestors lived about 3,000 years ago.

Lindquist, Ph.D., associate professor of biological sciences in the UB College of Arts and Sciences, is the paper’s senior author. During her extensive studies in Alaska, she discovered mammal fossils found in a cave on the state’s southeast coast. One bone was initially identified as coming from a bear. However, genetic analysis revealed it to be the remains of a human female.

“We realized that modern indigenous people in Alaska, if they have lived in the region since the early migrations, could be related to this prehistoric person,” says Albert Akil, a UB Ph.D. student in biological sciences and first author of the paper. The discovery led to efforts to solve this mystery, which DNA analysis is well suited to address when archaeological remains are as scarce as they were.

Learning from ancestors

Before an inland route between the ice sheets became viable, the earliest peoples had already begun moving south along the Pacific Northwest Coast. Some people, including a woman from the cave, made their home in the area around the Gulf of Alaska. The area is now home to the Tlingit Nation and three other groups: the Haida, the Tsimshian and the Nisga’a.

As Akil and colleagues analyzed the genome of this 3,000-year-old individual—”research that wasn’t possible just 20 years ago,” Lindquist noted—they determined that he was most closely related to the Alaska Native people living in the area today. This fact indicates that any genetic connections of the ancient woman to present-day Native Americans had to be documented as clearly as possible.

In such efforts, it is important to collaborate closely with the people who live where archaeological remains are found. Therefore, cooperation between Alaska Natives and the scientific community has been an important component of cave exploration in the region. The Wrangel Cooperative Association named the ancient person analyzed in this study as “Tatok Yik Yes Shawat” (Girl in the Cave).

Genetic continuity in southeast Alaska continues for thousands of years

Indeed, Akil and Lindqvist’s research showed that the Tatok Yik Yes Sawat are in fact most closely related to the present-day Tlingit people and coastal tribes. Their research therefore reinforces the idea that genetic continuity in Southeast Alaska has persisted for thousands of years.

Human migration into North America, although it began about 24,000 years ago, came in waves—one of which, about 6,000 years ago—included the Paleo-Inuit, formerly known as the Paleo-Eskimos. Importantly for understanding the migration of indigenous peoples from Asia, the DNA of the Tatóok yík yées shaawat did not reveal ancestry from the second wave of settlers, the Paleo-Inuit. Indeed, the analyzes by Akil and Lindquist helped shed light on the continuing debate over migration routes, the admixture of peoples from these different waves, as well as the modern regional patterns of inland and coastal peoples of the Pacific Northwest in the pre-colonial era.

Oral history connects an ancient woman to people living in Southeast Alaska today

Oral origin accounts of the Tlingit people include the story of the most recent eruption of Mount Edgecumbe, which would place them in the region exactly 4,500 years ago. Tatóok yík yees shawat, his relative, therefore informs not only modern-day anthropological researchers but also Tlingit people.

Out of respect for the Tlingit people’s right to control and protect their cultural heritage and their genetic resources, data from the study of Tatóok yík yées shaawat will be available only after its use has been reviewed by the Rangel Cooperative Association Tribal Council.

“It’s very exciting to contribute to our knowledge of the prehistory of Southeast Alaska,” Akil said.

More information:
Albert Akil et al., Paleogenome from a Holocene individual supports genetic continuity in southeast Alaska, iScience (2023). DOI: 10.1016/j.isci.2023.106581

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