About 5,000 years ago, after massive ice sheets from the Last Glacial Maximum retreated, the Maritime Archaic peoples carved a living from the sea and woodlands on Newfoundland’s west coast.
It’s not clear where they came from or how they got there. But they left behind polished slate spears, stone axes and the remains of ancient fireplaces in rows along the beach that hint at how they hunted seals and wild game.
At Port au Choix, north of today’s Gros Morne National Park, archeologists in 1968 recovered hundreds of artifacts. There were carved pendants resembling birds, shell beads, decorative stones, quartz and amethyst crystals suggesting spiritual rites of a well established culture.
This southern branch of the Maritime Archaic mysteriously vanish from the archeological record some 3,000 years ago.
Still, it was widely speculated they were related to the later Beothuks who thrived in Newfoundland for hundreds of years before Europeans arrived. They were gradually cut off from crucial fishing and hunting grounds before the last known Beothuk died of tuberculosis in 1829.
New genetic research published Thursday suggests the Maritime Archaic were in fact distinct from the Beothuk.
“This in turn implies that the island of Newfoundland was populated multiple times by distinct groups,” says molecular anthropologist Ana Duggan, co-author of the study published in the journal “Current Biology.”
“The dynamics of human movement are probably much more complex than we’ve appreciated in the past,” she said in an interview from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.
“The part that was the most intriguing for me was that, when we try and calculate back to where that common maternal ancestry might have been, it’s much older than I think we might have guessed.”
DNA passed from mothers to children was drawn from the bones and teeth of 74 individuals. Those specimens, including 19 Beothuk samples analyzed with the co-operation of Indigenous leaders in the province, indicate the Maritime Archaic share no recent maternal ancestor with the Beothuk who arrived much later.
Duggan figures that common gene pool dates back 10,000 years or more.
“What this work has shown is that DNA has the ability to answer questions that the archeological record can’t.”
The study is called “Genetic Discontinuity between the Maritime Archaic and Beothuk Populations in Newfoundland, Canada.”
Assessed DNA included a sample from a gravesite of an adolescent individual at L’Anse Amour in southern Labrador. It’s the oldest known burial mound in North America and is believed to date back about 7,700 years.
WATCH: Montreal photographer pairing people with ancient doppelgängers
Two other samples were from remains of the Palaeoeskimo peoples who inhabited Newfoundland after the Maritime Archaics left for reasons that aren’t clear.
“To some people, the Beothuk were just a continuation of the Maritime Archaic and maybe they had moved off the island and went farther south because of deteriorating climate at the time, but then they would have just come back on,” said Hendrik Poinar, a professor of evolutionary genetics at McMaster University.
“This says that they went off, but maybe they ended up in Nova Scotia or Maine and are linked to contemporary peoples there today. But the Beothuk were clearly derived of a different ancestral group that came from somewhere else.”
What does this mean for anyone now wondering about their own heritage?
Poinar said those are questions still to be studied
“I think as we start acquiring the genetics of these ancient remains, we can start better understanding that complexity. And if we can tie that in with contemporary genetics – only if the contemporary communities are interested in and willing to do so – then we can definitely look for continuity between these populations in present day people,” he said in an interview.
“I think DNA from these ancient remains has tremendous potential to illuminate the past.”