Petroglyphs on the mainland near Wrangell.
(Sage Smiley / KSTK)

New genetic analysis from an ancient human bone fragment supports thousands of years of existing Lingít oral tradition – making a DNA connection between Lingít people today and their ancient ancestors living on the coast 6,000 years ago. 

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It doesn’t take a huge archaeological discovery to look deep into the past. Sometimes, all it takes is a piece of bone, two fingers wide. 

“If I have to summarize it in one sentence, I would say that the Lingít people have been in their home territory for a hell of a long time,” says Alber Aqil, an evolutionary biologist and fourth-year doctoral candidate at the University at Buffalo in New York. He’s the lead author of a study published recently in the journal iScience.

“The results are consistent with some of the oral traditions that the Lingít people hold,” Aqil continues. “For example, they place themselves at the eruption of Mt. Edgecumbe, and we know from geological data that last happened 4,500 years ago. And we’re saying that the Lingít people have been here for at least 6,000 years. So it’s very consistent.”

Aaltséen Esther Reese is the administrator for Wrangell’s tribal government. 

“It’s just wonderful to have our oral histories now confirmed by science,” Reese says. She’s also named as an author in the study.

“It’s upholding what we’ve known,” Reese adds. “We’ve been on this land since time immemorial, and we have our oral histories and we know them to be true. Findings like this just uphold the fact that those histories are extremely accurate.”

The study focuses on a fragment of bone that’s about the size of a slice of banana. It was part of the humerus bone in the upper arm of a young woman who lived around 3,000 years ago. It was found in Lawyer’s Cave on the mainland, just across from Wrangell. It’s the same area where a 10,000-year-old dog bone was identified a few years ago.

“This bone was found along with some beads made out of shells and some sewing tools,” Aqil says, adding: “These archaeological associations are always very fun, because in my head, I try to put myself in the shoes of this person and say: ‘All right, I was living 3,000 years ago, I was probably in a population where people made necklaces, and they were sewing stuff.’ And it’s just fun to think about it that way.”

Analysis also showed the woman’s diet was probably primarily marine proteins like fish. Aqil explains the fragment was part of a collection of bones collected from the Alexander Archipelago of Southeast Alaska by the South Dakota geologist Timothy Heaton around two decades ago. Researchers at the time thought it was from an ancient bear. But basic DNA analysis proved otherwise. 

In 2019, when Aqil’s professor Charlotte Lindqvist found it was a piece of human bone, they reached out to Wrangell’s tribe, the Wrangell Cooperative Association, to ask permission to study the fragment. 

“Once we had found out that this bone was from a human, it was very likely that this was an ancestor of the people living there today,” Aqil relates, “So we contacted the community. And we said, ‘Hey, we have found this bone. Number one, is it okay if we study it? And number two, if it is okay, then would you like to give this bone a name?’”

The Tribe agreed and decided on a name. 

Reese explains: “[Xwaanlein] Virginia Oliver worked with [Kaanak] Ruth Demmert in Keex’ Kwaan to come up with a name for the ancestor which was Tatóok yík yées sháawat which literally means young lady in a cave.” 

Reese says she feels that scientific approach was “completely appropriate” and a respectful way to go about doing research.

“I mean, obviously, this is our ancestor displaced from Wrangell in another place being studied,” she says, “And so to reach out to the tribe, to request permission, to keep the tribe updated, was just an excellent example of what collaboration can be to work with the tribes and work with these institutions to come up with some pretty amazing findings.”

Researchers also collaborated with the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the area around the cave. 

Aqil says he believes it’s important for Indigenous communities to be involved in research. After all, he says, it’s their ancestors being studied. 

“Historically, scientists in America have unfortunately had the bad habit of taking data from Indigenous people and not keeping them involved, not reporting to them,” Aqil says. “In some cases, some graves were dug and bodies just taken away. Slowly, however, these things are changing, and we want to be part of that change. What we want to do is ensure that the Indigenous communities have ownership over their stories, and that they’re in some capacity involved in the research as well.”

And he says it’s important for scientists to have the proper background as well. As part of his research, Aqil studied Lingít culture and oral histories. To study the bone fragment from Tatóok yík yées sháawat (TTYS), Aqil says it took a little bit of powdered bone and a lot of computer analysis.

“You take the bone and you drill into it, and you obtain this little powder, which contains pieces of DNA,” Aqil explains, “And then you do various chemistry, and you extract the DNA from it, then you sequence the DNA. And now you have a nice little code. As it happens, we also have DNA sequences from a lot of Indigenous people in the region.”

Comparing those sequences led him to the conclusion that the 3,000-year-old fragment of bone is most closely related to the coastal Indigenous people of Southeast Alaska and Haida Gwaii – the Lingít, Haida, Tsimshian, and Nisga’a. It wasn’t as closely related to Indigenous people living in the interior of modern-day British Columbia. 

“Based on that, we can say that the interior peoples and the coastal peoples had diverged or moved away from each other at least 3,000 years ago,” Aqil says, “So we know that 3,000 years ago, a certain people were living in Southeast Alaska. And the people living there today are very likely the descendants of these people.”

It’s a matrilineal connection, as one kind of DNA studied is only passed through generations of mothers. In Lingít culture, clan and moiety are passed through the mother’s line as well. Looking at previous research, Aqil says the genetic connections can be made even further back in time – showing that ancestors of Indigenous people still living in Southeast Alaska have been in the region at least 6,000 years. 

Research done by other scientists included a published genome from a 6,000-year-old bone found in coastal British Columbia.

“And we see that that 6,000-year-old bone follows the same pattern, where it’s more closely related to the coastal people than to the interior people,” Aqil explains, “So that takes it one step further.”

He continues: “We know that people who are living on the coast have been living on the coast for at least 6,000 years, and people who have been living in Southeast Alaska in particular have been living in Southeast Alaska for at least 3,000 years. It could be more, but we can only give the lower bound: 3,000 years.”

He says that connection – of the 6,000-year-old genome to coastal Indigenous peoples – is a new one, even though the data was already published. 

There is older evidence of Indigenous civilization in Southeast Alaska – like the discovery of 11,000-year-old fish weirs off of Prince of Wales Island last year – but this recent genetic linkage represents a new kind of confirmation, which traces a direct line between ancestors and Alaska Native people residing in Southeast Alaska today.

Aqil says that there isn’t much more that can be studied in the fragment of bone from Tatóok yík yées sháawat. 

“So at this point, we would just have to wait and see if somebody else stumbles upon a certain ancient bone and whether the Indigenous communities allow it to be studied,” Aqil says. “As far as this bone is concerned, our next step would be to return the remains to the community, so that they can rebury their ancestor with all the ceremony and ritual that it entails.”

While there’s no timeline for repatriation yet, tribal administrator Reese says tribal staff and members visited Lawyer’s Cave with the Forest Service last summer, to see where Tatóok yík yées sháawat was found. The area is riddled with petroglyphs and ancient fish traps made of stone and wooden stakes.

“You look at these stakes, and you see these grooves in these stakes that are 1,500 years old,” Reese relates: “It really makes you feel connected to the ancestors.”

On the beach by the cave, she says a few tribal members drummed and sang a Lingít song for Tatóok yík yées sháawat.

“It was just this powerful moment of recognizing that this was a significant place, and that we were here to learn, and that we were there to honor the ancestor,” she says.

On that trip, she says they also found a piece of obsidian. It’s natural to the nearby Stikine River and indicative of trade between clans – more evidence for what Reese and other residents already knew – that they live on the same lands their ancestors have stewarded for thousands of years.

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