Tuesday, May 19, 2020

History of DNA history

Shawnadithit: still dead
I was a little creeped out recently by a recent CBC-News headline: "Thought to be extinct, Beothuk DNA is present in living families." It smelled a bit of, not exactly pseudo-science, but surely the misapplication of scientific data to historic and cultural questions.

DNA was recently harvested from teeth preserved from the corpses of two of the last known Beothuk individuals (sort of creepy in itself). According to a Memorial University biologist, that DNA matches DNA in living individuals. Therefore, trumpets the news headline, the Boethuk are not extinct.

Two things. One, the Beothuk nation is extinct. It is not coming back. Two, the Beothuk did not arrive in Newfoundland from outer space. It stand to reason that they had close links to other indigenous peoples nearby, in Labrador, Quebec, and possibly the Atlantic provinces. Therefore Beothuk DNA, if accurately identified, will compare closely to existing indigenous DNA from the region. Conclusion: Having one's DNA match to an early 19th century Beothuk does not make one a Beothuk, any more than having a mix of European and indigenous DNA makes one M├ętis.

The biologist concerned seems to be aware of this, and most of his remarks are hedged. The misleading claims seem to come mostly from the reporter. But the whole process of taking an isolated DNA test result, so far unreplicated, and using it to support large cultural/historical/political claims, out of all context, as this article does, is an abuse of both science and history. 

Update, May 20, 2020:  the current Canadian Historical Review includes a review of Tracing Ochre: Changing Perspectives on the Beothuk, a collection of articles evidently sensitive to many of these issues.    
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