DNA study seeks relatives of 'Ice Man' found in B.C.

Natives get chance this week to see if they are related to man discovered in Canadian glacier

Posted: Sunday, June 10, 2001

The Juneau-based Sealaska Heritage Foundation will gather blood samples this week for a DNA study to find relatives of a hundreds-of-years-old aboriginal man found in British Columbia.

Remains of the young man, who lived about 550 years ago, were discovered in August 1999 protruding from a glacier in British Columbia between the Southeast Alaska village of Klukwan and the Canadian village of Klukshu. The remains, found by four B.C. school teachers on a hunting trip, are housed at the Royal British Columbia Provincial Museum in Victoria, said Sealaska's Chuck Smythe, an ethnologist with 15 years experience in Southeast Alaska.

"The dating is based on two objects found with him: a woven spruce root hat and a ground squirrel skin robe. They were dated to 550 years before present using Carbon 14 analysis," Smythe said.

"This is an outstanding discovery because we believe he is pre-white contact and he is in good physical condition with a partial tool kit. He was probably walking between communities, possibly traveling to or from the coast of Alaska. Whether he is Alaskan or Canadian is not known, but the discovery has sparked real interest in the connections of everybody and how people may be related to him," Smythe said.

The glacier where the man's remains were found lies along one of the traditional routes that more-or-less parallels the Chilkat River. Finding someone near this route "confirms all those oral traditions that there was extensive contact and travel" between coastal Alaska Tlingits and Canada's Tutchone, Smythe said. Klukshu is a Southern Tutchone community just off the Haines Highway.

The "Ice Man" was discovered on the Canadian side of the border in the territory of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, called CAFN, which has assumed responsibility for the man, naming him Kwaday Dan Ts'inchi or "Person From Long Ago Found." The most direct modern route between Klukwan and Klukshu is the Haines Highway; that portion of it measures about 110 miles and crosses Chilkat Pass.

The Ice Man was found "approximately halfway between Klukshu and Klukwan," said Sarah Gaunt of the First Nations group. He was in his early 20s when he died, and his body was nearly complete, except for his head. Scientists have returned to the site to try to locate his cranium as well as additional items he might have been carrying, Smythe said.

First Nations elders met at their Haines Junction headquarters in May and agreed scientific studies should be done to learn more about the man and his origins. "CAFN feels that there was a purpose that he was found, that he is bringing people together in a way that the border between the two countries has artificially cut off," he said.

The Canadian group decided to conduct a DNA study that will compare the genetic material of the Ice Man with modern Pacific Northwest Indians to see if his relatives can be found. Volunteers willing to participate are invited to come to the second floor of Sealaska Plaza, 2 to 4:30 p.m. Monday or 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. Tuesday. Volunteers provide a drop of blood from a fingertip as well as genealogical information.

"We are particularly interested in people from Haines, Klukwan and Taku lineages," Smythe said.

Each volunteer will sign a consent form allowing the blood sample to be used by a research team at the University of Victoria. "The samples will be destroyed after the study," Smythe said.

According to CAFN, the Champagne and Aishihik peoples maintained trading relations with neighbors to the south, the Tlingits of the Pacific Coast. In former days most were bilingual, speaking Southern Tutchone and Tlingit. Relations were strengthened by intermarriage and visiting.

The traveler was carrying dried chum salmon. Scientists are trying to use the fish's scales to identify the watershed where it spawned.

Other objects found with the Ice Man include a metal blade with a wooden handle in a leather sheath; an atlatl (throwing stick) decorated with diagonally crossed lines; a walking stick and a leather pouch. There was evidence of caribou and beaver hide in the area, and a moose carcass was nearby.

The woven spruce root is "very similar to Tlingit hats made today, but is smaller and extremely finely woven," Smythe said. Haida weaver Delores Churchill of Ketchikan was dispatched to see the hat and count its stitches.

"She thinks it's extremely exciting and more sophisticated than one might have thought. It establishes that fine Tlingit work was there before contact," he said.

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at achandonnet@juneauempire.com.

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