Finding long, long lost relatives

Posted: Thursday, June 03, 2010

Many people have some idea where they come from, but Brian Kemp's research branches out much further than any family tree.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File

The anthropologist used DNA samples he collected in Juneau two years ago to draw genetic connections not only among Native Southeast Alaskans but also to regions in other parts of the Americas.

Kemp found maternal lineages to Southern California and, surprisingly to him, a high frequency of genetic connections to the American Southwest.

"Now the question is, how did they get up here?" Kemp said.

He will explore possible answers to that question Friday during a lecture that is part of Celebration, Juneau's biennial multi-day cultural event.

Kemp returns to Juneau after collecting more than 200 DNA samples (saliva in test tubes) during Celebration 2008. He wanted to see if he could make a link to a man whose 10,300-year-old remains were found in a cave on Prince of Wales Island in 1996.

He did not find a match but said the genetic information has provided an interesting population study of the region's indigenous people.

His research uses DNA sequencing to make connections to the past.

"I can't tell you all about you, but in the end I can probably tell you something you didn't know about yourself," he said.

And his research did find that a large number of people here have the same DNA type as "Ice Man," whose remains were found in a glacier near the Yukon, British Columbia border in 1999. The man, named Kwaday Dn Sinchi by First Nations elders, meaning "long ago person found," was thought to have lived up to 550 years ago.

The connections to Southwest Native Americans likely go back 4,000 years, Kemp said.

An assistant professor at Washington State University, Kemp teaches anthropology, human evolution and courses in genetics. Friday's talk will start with a basic explanation of how DNA is used to understand how people are related, and will end with time for questions, he said.

• Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or

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