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New genetics study helps paint new picture of American settlement

Science Magazine


The story of how First Nations people initially settled the Americas is changing, with new technology leading to new studies.


KDLL’s Shaylon Cochran spoke with Dr. Alan Boraas from Kenai Peninsula College about his contribution to a new report out in Science Magazine that suggests migration patterns into and through coastal America are much different than previously thought. Find the full interview at the bottom of the page.


Interview highlights:



Shaylon Cochran: Maybe just to start, you could give us the 5,000 foot view of what sort of questions the study was trying to answer and how some of the different components, including yours, fit into that.

Dr. Alan Boraas: Genomics is advancing rapidly. Particularly what’s called ancient genomics. DNA degrades once people die and techniques are being developed and advanced to resurrect that DNA so it can be used for various studies, including historic relationships. So, this is what this study is about; looking at Native Americans, North and South Americans, so it’s broad in scope in terms of groups that eventually migrated to North America and South America.

SC: So it’s essentially connecting dots. You have these DNA samples from all these different places, and you know approximately how old they are. And by connecting those dots, you can paint in that picture of how those cultures may have overlapped and when you begin doing that, you can really start to tell a story.

AB: What’s been found through this extensive, broad study, is that the latter two, the northern and the southern group, probably migrated separately. And then intermixed at some point in time. So that complicates the picture quite a bit. And we’re talking about glacial times, so where glaciers were and how people moved is all part of the story. The term is now being used The Kelp Highway. Both the northern and the southern group probably moved from Siberia at some point in time, with likely, a major standstill, at least 1,000 years of no movement, and hence, there is no group in Siberia that exactly matches either the northern or the southern group. Then, a migration down the coast rather than the Beringia-Interior view that used to be popular 20-30 years ago.

Why the study is significant

AB: When elders are asked about these earlier times, they will say we’ve been here forever. And in a sense, this (study) is substantiating that. Fourteen-thousand years is not forever, but it’s pretty darn close. So this has implications for land rights and has implications for why First Nations or First Peoples have land rights and rights that may be different from the rest of us who came much, much more recently.

SC: The part that you helped with on this was identifying remains on the Kenai Peninsula, near Nikiski that had been exposed through bluff erosion, and they were able to be analyzed as part of this study?

AB: Exactly. And I want to emphasize this was done in complete cooperation with the Kenaitze Tribe. They were in it from the beginning. It’s their people. And nothing would have been done had not the tribal council weighed what possible information could have come and how this information would be treated. And that’s critical. They were partners along the way and in this article that came out, they are acknowledged.

SC: You talked about practical implications from this in terms of land rights and I’m curious, are there other places where genomic testing and DNA studies have placed a people there at a certain point and that has been the foundation for legal action that has changed anything?

AB: Yes. In Samiland in northern Scandinavia. In Australia, in New Zealand. Those come to mind. Where genomic testing has been considered in terms of indigenous rights. What this (study) can do is contribute to our understanding and from a more accurate understanding of history, in its broad sense, we come up with a better understanding and practices right now, and that’s a good thing.


Full Interview: