Giving blood in a search for history

Natives participate in tests designed to track relatives of man discovered at glacier

Posted: Wednesday, June 13, 2001

The pin prick to draw Loretta Marvin's blood was a slight inconvenience but an extraordinary opportunity for her to help unravel the mystery of a man who died five centuries ago.

Researchers hope the drops of blood taken from more than 50 Southeast Alaska Natives this week will help determine if there are genetic links to the ancient man found last year on the ice in British Columbia.

"This is pretty interesting, very fascinating, to be able to find out and check back what is it, 500 years, and there is maybe a possibility I could be a relative," Marvin said. "It's just kind of fascinating to know what DNA can do."

The headless body of what some call "the Ice man," named Kwaday Dan Ts'inchi or "Long Ago Man Found" by Canadian Native leaders, was discovered by sheep hunters in 1999 at the foot of a melting glacier in Tatshenshini-Alsek Park near the British Columbia-Yukon border.

A hat and robe found near the body were are dated to between 1415 and 1445. But the items, plus others found nearby, give mixed information about where the man was from.

His finely woven spruce root hat was in the style of the coastal Tlingit of Southeast Alaska, but his robe was of Interior gopher fur. His hunting tools included wood from coastal trees as well as from the Interior. Researchers also found pollen on the robe from a meadow-like area, from high alpine alder, from river valley vegetation and from coastal hemlock.

"There's four ecosystems represented in the coat alone, which means it was a well-traveled coat," said Sarah Gaunt, heritage planner for Champagne and Aishihik First Nations.

The First Nations group decided to take DNA samples from present day Tlingit and Athabascan Tutshone people in Canada. In Alaska, the group is also testing DNA of people with ancestors from Yakutat, Klukwan and Haines.

Genealogical information is being collected from donors, many of whom lined up Monday and Tuesday at the Sealaska building in Juneau to donate blood samples and share stories with First Nations workers.

Harryet Rappier, of Juneau, said she was curious to learn about her northern relatives, especially her mother who born in 1903 in Klukshu, Yukon.

"I just can't get enough information from that part of the country," Rappier said.

The Kwaday Dan Sinchi study is one of two dozen underway by Native groups and universities in Canada, Great Britain and Australia, Gaunt said.

Chuck Smythe, an ethnologist with Juneau's Sealaska Heritage Foundation, said DNA tests in Cheddar, England, found a teacher who was a direct descendant of a person whose 9,000-year-old bones were found in a nearby cave.

There are no guarantees that will happen in this case, however. Gaunt noted that intermarriage - both past and present - may frustrate those hoping for clear-cut genetic answers.

"There may not be any matches at all," Gaunt said. "Even if we do find a match, it may not tell us he was necessarily Tlingit or necessarily Tutshone."

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