JOHN’S — A Newfoundland First Nation has announced a study of genetic links between its members and ancient Indigenous inhabitants of the island, including the Beothuk people.
Chief Mi’Sel Joe of Miawpukek First Nation said the study offers an opportunity to match scientific evidence against oral stories that trace family histories back to the Beothuk — widely thought to be extinct.
“We’ve been lied about, shot at and stories told about us that’s been untrue for 500 years,” Joe said in a phone interview. “I look at it as writing history from our perspective.”
The project, announced this month, is titled “Genetic relationships among the Mi’kmaq Miawpukek First Nation, ancient Beothuk, and other Native- and Euro-Americans.” It will be done in partnership with Terra Nova Genomics, Inc. and funded by a National Geographic Explorer’s grant of US$30,000.
Joe said community members have been curious and receptive so far in meetings with Terra Nova Genomics founder Steven Carr, who will lead the research.
Carr, who is also a professor at Memorial University, said the study is the largest of its kind with an Indigenous group in Canada, and the first National Geographic grant awarded to a project based in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Researchers plan to begin looking at DNA testing kits from a sample group of 20 people. Carr says the ideal candidate is a registered member of the Miawpukek First Nation who can trace their mother’s side ancestry through the Mi’kmaq community before the First Nation was established.
There is enough funding to assess 100 additional kits, and Carr said ideally the project will look at DNA from as many volunteers as possible.
Recent genetic studies on Newfoundland’s original inhabitants have laid the groundwork for the seemingly impossible project looking at a population with no known living descendants.
Beothuk people were hunter-gatherers who thrived on what is now Newfoundland until the arrival of European settlers brought widespread disease, loss of hunting ground and acts of possible genocide. The last known Beothuk woman, Shawnadithit, died in St. John’s in 1829.
A 2017 study published in the journal “Current Biology” looked at mitochondrial DNA, passed on from mother to child, from remains of Beothuk and Maritime Archaic people, who preceded the Beothuk on the island. It found the two groups were distinct from each other, complicating the long-held belief that Beothuk were Maritime Archaic descendants.
Carr said mitochondrial DNA used in that study offers a necessary comparative basis for his work with Miawpukek First Nation, along with samples from the remains of Beothuk couple Nonosabasut and Demasduit, stolen from a grave site in 1828 and taken to a Scottish museum.
“They are prime targets for comparison with modern people,” Carr said. “We’re looking for closely related individuals in the modern population, and the question becomes, how closely related? How does it compare to other things that we know about, and how common is it?”
Carr said the project is going ahead with the trust and respect of the community, and stressed that is not the study is not seeking to define an individual’s status with the First Nation. Rather, it’s a project to bring together pieces from the island’s complicated genetic puzzle and possibly answer long-held questions of identity and history in the community.
“Given that we know what the Maritime Archaic and the Beothuk mitochondrial DNAs look like, we are looking for any evidence that those DNAs subsist in the community nowadays,” he said. “We’re telling the story.”
Testing is set to begin in January and Carr says it may be a year or more before findings are ready for publication.