Thought to be extinct, Beothuk DNA is still present in N.L. families, genetics researcher finds

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Thought to be extinct, Beothuk DNA is still present in N.L. families, genetics researcher finds
Steve Carr is a biology professor at Memorial University in St. John’s. (Memorial University )

A St. John’s genetics specialist has found DNA connections that link the Beothuk people to contemporary people, almost two centuries after the last known Beothuk died. 

Steve Carr, a biology professor at Memorial University, says that his research also shows that the genetic material of the ancient Maritime Archaic people still exists to this day, centuries after they disappeared from places like Port au Choix, on Newfoundland’s west coast.  

Shanawdithit, the last known member of the Beothuk people, died in 1829. The Beothuk have long been described as extinct, but Carr says a more accurate phrasing is culturally extinct, as the science of DNA is now reshaping the story. 

For years, Indigenous people in Newfoundland — including the Mi’kmaq — have maintained they are related to the Beothuk. 

Carr, whose findings have been published in the journal Genome, says there is evidence to support that position. 

“The question was whether those genetic descendants had descendants, and those descendants had descendants, and whether they persist to the modern times. And the answer from my analysis is, yes they do,” Carr told CBC Radio’s Newfoundland Morning

DNA was harvested from the molars of the skulls of two well-known Beothuk persons: Demasduit, the aunt of Shanawdithit who died in 1820, and her husband, Nonosbawsut, who was killed a year earlier while he tried to prevent her capture.  

In 2017, a graduate student collected the DNA from a museum in Scotland, where the Beothuk remains had been held until this March, when they were returned to Newfoundland. 

‘Literally their cousins’

The DNA was then compared with databases, and Carr said the links are clear. 

“There is a living person who is genetically identical to Nonosbawsut,” Carr said. 

Thought to be extinct, Beothuk DNA is still present in N.L. families, genetics researcher finds
Demasduit is one of the few Beothuk whose likeness is known. This watercolour was painted by Lady Henrietta Hamilton. (Library and Archives Canada)

“I have actually spoken to the person and he’s fascinated to find out this connection. The odd thing there is that he has been pursuing genealogy for a number of years. He can trace his maternal ancestry back five generations and there’s no indications in that record of any First Nations or Native American ancestry.” 

There are no direct descendants of Demasduit and Nonosbawsut. The couple had an infant son, who died. 

However, the family tree that included Demasduit and Nonosbawsut clearly has branches that are thriving today. 

“However, where those two individuals were members of what we understand to be the last band of Beothuk, it’s certainly possible that their brothers or their uncles or their grandfathers or their great-grandfathers or their great-great-grandfathers, that they had children who survived, and the modern persons that we find who are identical to or similar to Nonosbawsut and Demasduit are literally their cousins,” Carr said. 

“[This is] in exactly the way that we think about cousins. Cousins are people who have an ancestor in common.” 

‘We knew it all along’

Carr said it’s likely members of the Beothuk people “had what we’ll call friendly relationships” with other people, which led to children being born centuries ago who went on to reproduce family lines that still flourish. 

Chief Mi’sel Joe of the Miawpukek First Nation welcomed Carr’s research. 

Thought to be extinct, Beothuk DNA is still present in N.L. families, genetics researcher finds
Mi’sel Joe, chief of the Miawpukek First Nation, said people in Conne River have always felt there were connections to the Beothuk. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

“I wasn’t surprised. We knew it all along,” Joe said. 

“But it was good to have it confirmed.” 

Carr, who is also the founder of a company called Terra Nova Genomics, will be working with the Miawpukek First Nation in Conne River for the next phase of an ongoing research project. 

He intends to compare DNA samples from that Mi’kmaq community with the Beothuk DNA, and believes more family connections will likely be proven.   

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador 

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