Unraveling the Genetic History of a First Nations People

27 Apr


Humans tend to view ourselves in terms of our impact on the world around us: the wars we’ve waged, the land we’ve settled, the machines we’ve made. But the natural world exerts a reciprocal force on us, shaping the members of our species down to our very cells. The macroscopic challenges we face as societies are reflected in our microscopic DNA, transmitted and transmuted across time as we—like all other animals—slowly but steadily evolve.

From an evolutionary standpoint, it was not long ago that the Tsimshian people of modern-day Alaska and British Columbia were first confronted with European settlers—roughly 175 years, a mere handful of generations out of the Tsimshian’s 6,000-year American history. But that fateful encounter, which introduced smallpox and other alien ailments into their population, decimated the Tsimshian and threatened to compromise their genetic diversity in the years ahead.

This landmark moment in Native American history captured the imagination of John Lindo, a genetic anthropologist at Emory University who delved deep into Tsimshian DNA as lead author on a just-published paper in the American Journal of Human Genetics. Lindo focused his research on the Tsimshian in an effort to understand the genetic dynamics surrounding their population collapse, which could shed light on the experience of many other Native American groups upon first contact with Europeans.

So begins Ryan P. Smith’s report on the genetic history of the Tsimshian First Nation. You may read the rest of the report at Smithsonian.com here.

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