UAF Professor coauthors study in Science magazine

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The collection of bones and tools from which the infant’s tooth was discovered sat in a museum in Copenhagen for nearly 70 years. Photo Credit: Jeff Rasic National Park Service

 

UAF researcher co-authors study about first Americans

UAF Professor of  Fisheries and Ocean Sciences Dr. Matt Wooller’s isotopic analysis of a 9,000-year-old tooth was published in Science, one of the most prestigious journals in the country.

Wooller’s work allowed insight as to the diets of some of the first inhabitants of Alaska based on a nearly-forgotten artifact from a cave on the Seward Peninsula. His work led to a counter-intuitive finding.

“The site is surrounded by ocean and yet what we found chemically in the tooth was signatures that were more consistent with a terrestrial-based sources of food compared with marine sources despite marine resources surrounding the site,” he said.

Wooller said that this finding was particularly puzzling considering that the only other known site of these people, whom archaeologists call the Ancient Beringians, is in Interior Alaska on the Upward Sun site on the Tanana River. Paradoxically, those isotopic analyses showed a strong preponderance of marine food sources.

“Of course salmon are anadromous, so they are bringing marine nutrients into Interior Alaska,” he explained, “That’s how we reconcile that, is that those people had access to in close proximity with the Tanana River where today we have salmon.”

The site at which the tooth was found is located near Deering, Alaska in an area that is now inhabited by Inupiat Eskimos. Dr. Wooller and his colleague Dr. Jeff Rasic, who works with the National Park Service, said that they worked closely with the Deering Tribal Council to make sure that the research on the human remains was conducted with local input, which Rasic says can be a sensitive subject.

“We formally met with the IRA Tribal Council and raised the different possibilities for research with the collection and gauged their interests and input and objections,” said Rasic, “And they had none. They were curious to learn about their site more.”

The story of how the tooth was found stretches across decades and continents. According to Rasic of the National Park Service, the tooth was unknowingly excavated at a well-known cave at a site called Trail Creek back in 1949 by a Danish archeologist, Helge Larsen. Larsen brought the artifacts, which were mostly caribou and small mammal bones, back to Denmark, where they sat until 2012. In that year, a German graduate student conducted a thorough analysis of the bones and for the first time discovered an infant deciduous human tooth among the remains. That was when Rasic heard about the find, and he decided to investigate on a previously-planned trip to Copenhagen. 

“I brought the tooth to the attention of the ancient DNA specialist. It happened that one of the leading DNA labs in the world–and there are very few of these–happened to be in Copenhagen, so it was a very easy connection to make,” said Rasic.

The DNA analysis revealed that the tooth was indeed related to the oldest known inhabitants of Alaska, known as the Ancient Beringians, a term which was only coined in 2017 by another UAF archeologist, Dr. Ben Potter, who found cremated remains at the Upward Sun Site. That DNA showed only a distant relationship to the Native American lineage dating back to 35,000 years ago. Potter thus surmised that the Ancient Beringian lineage had died out while the Native Americans went on to colonize the rest of North and South America.

Pieces of the tooth were sent out to other laboratories for analysis across the world, including to Oxford, England where direct dating was done. A small portion was also sent to UAF for the isotopic analysis.

“The tooth is gone, there is one small fragment that we retained, but between the dating and DNA analysis that consumed the bulk of it,” he said, “We were very thoughtful, I think about that. We knew upfront that this was a very rare specimen and we were careful to squeeze every little bit of information from that tooth out of it.”

While the tooth no longer exists, Rasic says that scientists made high-resolution photographs of the tooth, and made a 3D copy of it so that future researchers can continue analysis. 

So are these the first ever Americans? “It looks that way,” says Rasic. “These are the earliest Alaskans and the earliest Alaskans are the earliest American.”

Still, he cautions not to read too much into this most recent analysis. “More finds, more analysis could change the picture,” he says, “We’re dealing with a sample size of just two Ancient Beringians, but each of those samples points to other relationships.”