The Beothuk people of Newfoundland lived peacefully until the 1500s — when European settlers arrived. The colonizers brought new diseases, which eventually led to the extinction of the Beothuk. At least, that’s what experts believed until April 2020.
In a stunning historical discovery, DNA evidence revealed the Beothuk line had survived. An unsuspecting man living in Tennessee was identified as a living descendant of the Indigenous group.
Prior to this remarkable discovery, it was believed that the last-known member was a woman named Shanawdithit — who died of tuberculosis in 1829.
“The question was whether those genetic descendants had descendants, and those descendants had descendants, and whether they persist to the modern times,” explained researcher Steven Carr in the Genome journal. “And the answer from my analysis is, yes they do.”
Carr began his research by analyzing the skulls of Shanawdithit’s uncle and aunt, Demasduit, as well as the mitochondrial DNA from the remains of 18 Beothuk people. Remarkably, the DNA evidence didn’t just indicate that the Tennessean had descended from this tribe, but that his genome was “identical” to that of Shanawdithit’s uncle.
He then searched for matches in GenBank, a DNA database provided by the U.S. National Institutes of Health which contains a wealth of DNA sequences from both commercial DNA tests and scientific research projects. Finally, Carr found a perfect match in a random Tennessee man — who was utterly floored by Carr’s historical discovery.
“I have actually spoken to the person and he’s fascinated to find out this connection,” said Carr. “The odd thing there is that he has been pursuing genealogy for…years. He can trace his maternal ancestry back five generations and there’s no indications in that record of any First Nations or Native American ancestry.”
Carr’s study also noted that there was no substantial genetic relationship between the Beothuk and the two other Indigenous groups of Newfoundland, the Palaeo-Eskimo and the Maritime Archaic. The latter virtually disappeared about 3,400 years ago, while the former inhabited the area from 3,800 to 1,000 years ago. This means they both overlapped with the Beothuk, which in itself is quite a fascinating discovery.
While other experts like William Fitzhugh of the Arctic Studies Center at the Smithsonian Institution is adamant that DNA studies aren’t the be-all and end-all, Carr’s work was undoubtedly some of the more enlightening history news of the year.