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DNA tests reveal living connections to an aboriginal iceman

The results of a scientific study centred on the body of an aboriginal iceman discovered in a melting glacier in northern British Columbia in 1999 has been creating quite a stir in Canadian newspapers and websites. This area is the homeland and traditional territory of native aboriginal Canadians that belong to the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations. Together with the Museum of British Columbia, they organised a conference and public lecture to discuss the iceman at the end of April 2008.

One aspect that has really caught people’s imaginations is the DNA study that has been organised by the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations. This has identified 17 living people who have similar DNA to the iceman, and who could be related to him. To say, at this stage, that he is their ancestor, or they are direct descendants is probably going too fast, but it is an interesting discovery.

DNA tests were carried out using preserved tissue from Kwaday Dan Ts'inchi – a name that means "Long Ago Person Found" and people from the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations community also had DNA tests so that their DNA and his could be compared. Chief Diane Strand of the Champagne and Ashihik First Nations organised the DNA tests on 241 people, all of native descent and local to British Columbia, Alaska and the Yukon. The results showed that 17 of them had very similar DNA markers to the iceman.

Above: Excavating and removing the Kwaday Dän Ts'inchi remains from the glacier. (Photos: A.P. Mackie, B.C. Archaeology Branch)
Bottom left: Hat, possibly woven from split roots, melted from glacier near human remains.
(Photo: Sarah Gaunt – CAFN)
Royal B.C. Museum Conservators Kjerstin Mackie and Valerie Thorp examining
fur garment fragments. (Photo: Royal B.C. Museum)

Left: Hand tool of unknown use with the pouch in which it was found (Photo: Yukon Government Heritage Branch)

Right: Fur garment fragment with stitching (Photo: Royal B.C. Museum)


The conference also looked at the situation in which the iceman was found, and reported other information such as his clothing and the contents of his stomach. Kwaday Dan Ts'inchi, thought to be in his early 20s when he died, was wearing a gopher and squirrel skin robe, made of 95 pelts held together with sinew. He had a walking stick, a throwing spear and an iron knife and is thought to have died about 300 years ago. This is the period of history before Europeans reached the area. The aboriginal iceman had crab and other seafood in his stomach, suggesting that he had been travelling and had not long visited the coast before he died.

Analysis of his body tissues also showed that he was infected by Helicobacter pylori – the bacterium that we now know causes stomach ulcers, and that he showed signs of TB infection. The project reported at the Conference was a unique mix of scientific research, DNA testing and collaboration with the local culture, which maintains a strong traditional of oral history. The people who have been found to have a genetic connection with the iceman are understandably excited but the reporting in Canada has not always been totally accurate.

One report suggested that, now DNA testing has revealed living relatives of the iceman, he can receive a potlatch and a dignified burial. However, his remains were cremated and his ashes spread over the area near to where he was found by representatives of the Champagne and Ashihik First Nation back in July 2001, so he has already received a traditional and dignified burial.

This is reported in the timeline of events by the KDT symposium website:

July 2001

Remains of Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi, are cremated at a Victoria crematorium and then carried north by Champagne and Aishihik First Nations staff. July 18, CAFN facilitates the organization of a funeral service for the Long Ago Person Found, with a committee comprised of both Wolf/Eagle and Crow/Raven representatives, from both the coast and the interior. Youth as well as Elders are involved in planning the potlatch and in the actual ceremonies, which take place at Klukshu. That same day the ashes of the Long Ago Person are returned to the area where he lost his life in Tatshenshini-Alsek Park

It is interesting that since the original iceman body was found, the glacier has continued to melt and further skeletal human remains have been found, but reburied nearby.  

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