Quinhagak Residents Hopeful Hair Samples Will Unlock More Mysteries About Ancestors

The Nunalleq archeological dig near Quinhagak in August, 2014. (Photo by Charles Enoch, KYUK - Bethel)
The Nunalleq archeological dig near Quinhagak in August, 2014. (Photo by Charles Enoch, KYUK – Bethel)

An archaeological dig near Quinhagak, in Southwest Alaska, contributed the largest set of genetic samples for a groundbreaking DNA study of Arctic indigenous people released this summer.

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The study answers longstanding questions about migrations of the ancient Alaska Native people, on the state’s west coast and the local people hope to learn even more about their own ancestors.

The project, called Nunalleq, meaning ‘old village’, is located five miles outside Quinhagak. Dr. Rick Knecht is an ararchaeologist with the University of Aberdeen in Scotland who manages the dig. He says permafrost at the ancient Yup’ik village of Araliq, preserved artifacts up to 700-years-old made of wood and leather that normally would have disintegrated.
Knecht says that most sites in the Lower 48 provide just ‘stones and bones’, but at the Araliq site they get, “Things like utensils that people used in their daily lives. We get bentwood bowls and scoops. We get ul’us with the handles still on them. We get grass baskets for example, complete grass baskets and woven mats. We’re getting things like weapons and kayak parts, masks and artwork, things that you normally just see in museums. And these all date from between about 1400 and 1600 AD.” And hundreds of hair samples Knecht says, likely clippings from haircuts were also preserved at the site. Some of those clippings contributed to the study of indigenous Alaskans that was featured in the journal, Science, this summer. “We contributed about 33 hair samples to the study and I think that’s more than any of the sites were able to produce. Just because of the extraordinary preservation here,” Knecht said. [caption id="attachment_126665" align="aligncenter" width="600"]Dr. Rick Knecht at the Nunalleq dig site. (Photo courtesy of the University of Aberdeen) Dr. Rick Knecht at the Nunalleq dig site. (Photo courtesy of the University of Aberdeen)[/caption] There were 169 samples analyzed in the study. The study, led by a group of Danish researchers revealed that the modern Inuit people, including those in Alaska are descended from the Thule, who developed around 700-hundred years ago, replacing an earlier population, the Paleo-Eskimos. The genetic evidence shows there was very little interbreeding, and that the Thule are the ancestors of the Yup’ik and Inupiat people living on Alaska’s west coast today. “We don’t know the origins of that, of what we call the Thule population or the Neo-Eskimos. But we do know that both in the archaeological evidence, both the artifacts and the genetics look very much alike, surprisingly so, on the two ends of the Arctic, which is the largest indigenous territory of any group in the world,” Knecht said. Knecht says the donation of the hair clippings from the Araliq site was the sole contribution for the study from Alaska. Warren Jones is the President of the village corporation in Quinhagak, Qanirtuuq Inc. He says they agreed to work with the archaeologists because they want to learn more about the people who they believe may be their ancestors. “The archaeologists know what they’re doing. And everything they dig out is going to be brought back to us. So it will be back here for our future, children, generations. Now our future kids, grandkids they’ll be able to see what our ancestors lived, how they lived, what they used, the tools they made. All the little stories are coming alive,” said Jones. [caption id="attachment_126666" align="aligncenter" width="540"]Warren Jones talking to Quinhagak elder Paul Beebe. (Photo courtesy of Jacqueline Cleveland) Warren Jones talking to Quinhagak elder Paul Beebe. (Photo courtesy of Jacqueline Cleveland)[/caption] Jones says the corporation is interested in comparing the DNA of the ancient people of Araliq with the modern residents of Quinhagak. “We might get to see who was related to the people of Araliq, that’s pretty cool,” said Jones. Jones says the corporation in Quinhagak eventually wants to develop ecotourism around the archaeological site, but rapid erosion at the site has made getting artifacts out a priority. Knecht says it requires a certain level of trust for Native people to allow genetic material to be released for studies, and the over the past five years of the project researchers from the University of Aberdeen and Native people in Quinhagak have built that trust. The project is funded by Qanirtuuq Inc. and through a $1.8 million grant from the UK-based Arts and Humanities Research Council.

KYUK reporters visited the Nunalleq archeological site in August. KYUK’s Shane Iverson and Charles Enoch contributed to this report.

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Daysha Eaton is the News Director at KBBI in Homer. Daysha Eaton holds a B.A. from Evergreen State College, and a M.A. from the University of Southern California. Daysha got her start in radio at Seattle public radio stations, KPLU and KUOW. Before coming to KBBI, she was the News Director at KYUK in Bethel. She has also worked as the Southcentral Reporter for KSKA in Anchorage. Daysha's work has appeared on NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered", PRI's "The World" and "National Native News". She's happy to take assignments, and to get news tips, which are best sent via email. Daysha became a journalist because she believes in the power of storytelling. Stories connect us and they help us make sense of our world. They shed light on injustice and they comfort us in troubled times. She got into public broadcasting because it seems to fulfill the intention of the 4th Estate and to most effectively apply the freedom of the press granted to us through the Constitution. She feels that public radio has a special way of moving people emotionally through sound, taking them to remote places, introducing them to people they would not otherwise meet and compelling them to think about issues they might ordinarily overlook.