DNA Study Sheds Light On How Paleo-Eskimos Disappeared

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The Dorset people, last of the Paleo-Eskimos, disappeared from the Arctic about 700 years ago. They had dominated much of the eastern Canada and Greenland for centuries. The Dorset people hunted walrus and seal, and practiced shamanistic rituals with masks and ornate carvings. How they disappeared remained a mystery for centuries.

Paleo-Eskimos stem from a migration from Siberia

Our previous understanding the Paleo-Eskimos was based on cultural artifacts dug up by archaeologists. Now, more than four dozen researchers from across the globe have endeavored to offer new insights into their extinction based in DNA sequences. Scientists have long disagreed about the lineages of Arctic cultures. Since 1920s, the relationships between various ancient cultural groups have been heavily discussed.

The three broadly-grouped cultures – the Saqqaq, the Dorset and the Thule – all lived in the northern part of North America. The Saqqaq lived until 2,500 years ago, followed by the Dorset cultures. The Thule (ancestors of modern-day Inuit) lived from about 1,000 years ago. DNA analysis of 169 ancient human remains showed that the Saqqaq and the Dorset, together called Paleo-Eskimos, have a single genetic lineage.

Dr Maanasa Raghavan, lead author of the study, said all the Paleo-Eskimos stem from a migration from Siberia that began about 6,000 years ago. They endured the Arctic’s harsh environmental conditions for some 5,000 years. During that period, lifestyle and culture changed enough to be represented as distinct cultures. Findings of the study were published in the journal Science.

Paleo-Eskimos lived in isolation?

Before the Paleo-Eskimos disappeared about 700 years ago, there was no mixing between them and the Thule (Inuit ancestors). Researchers confirmed that the Thule rose from the second, distinct migration from Siberia. Carbon dating reveals that the Paleo-Eskimos (the Saqqaq and the Dorset) and the Thule overlapped in northern Canada and Greenland for several centuries. But the Paleo-Eskimos lived in isolation.

Scientists also compared ancient DNA samples with genomes from living people. They said that the separate, subsequent migration waves gave rise to Thule and two distinct groups of Native Americans. That means modern-day Inuits and Native Americans arose from separate migrations. As for how the Paleo-Eskimos might have disappeared, some researchers suggest that it was harsh environmental conditions that destroyed their race. One scientist said, ““When you’re dealing with sea ice, just a few degrees can be transformative. Three bad winters in a row where you can’t hunt seals, you’re in trouble.”