Natives give DNA samples to see if they match ancient remains

Posted: Friday, June 06, 2008

Dr. Brian Kemp's research table buzzed with activity Thursday as Alaska Natives attending the first day of Celebration 2008 stopped by to give DNA samples for his research.

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

More than 50 people had signed consent forms and spit into plastic test tubes (the DNA collection method) by late afternoon, hoping to find out if they are matched genetically with a young man whose 10,300-year-old remains were found in a cave on Prince of Wales Island.

"My family is from Klawock, so I'd like to be able to prove it," said Richard Knott from Sprague, Wash. He said it took about five minutes to get through the process.

Kemp, an assistant professor with Washington State University's department of anthropology, said he was pleased with the participation level.

"In terms of our knowledge of Tlingit DNA before we started this study, we've already multiplied what we know about Tlingits tenfold," he said. He is prepared to collect up to 500 DNA samples during the festival, which ends Saturday.

Participants will be notified by Sealaska Heritage Institute if their DNA matches the man, whose remains were found in 1996. He was estimated to be in his 20s when he died and had a diet of primarily seafood, researchers said. The skeletal remains - teeth, vertebrae and part of his pelvis - are some of the oldest bones found in the Americas.

Notifications about matches are expected this fall, Kemp said. He wants to return to Juneau for Celebration 2010 to explain larger findings associated with the study, using the genetic information to construct a population history for the region.

"We want to understand how the Tlingit are related to other Interior Athabascan populations, which we think may also be closely related to Haida," he said. "Maybe we'll see that is true."

Only 1.5 percent of Alaska Natives are thought to be potentially related to the 10,300-year-old man, Kemp said. So if he collects 500 samples, only a handful will match.

The DNA testing is free, and results are confidential. Participants are asked to fill out a form explaining their tribal relations for three generations, but those who don't know can still participate.

The research table is located in the lobby of Centennial Hall, next to SHI's merchandise area.

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