April 28, 2008 at 5:40 AM EDT
Scientists have found a direct link between the frozen remains of a man found in a glacier in northern B.C. and 17 people living in B.C., Yukon and Alaska.
The news came at a symposium in Victoria this past weekend, focusing on Kwaday Dan Ts'inchi', an aboriginal man whose remains were found in 1999 by hunters in Tatshenshini-Alsek Park, which is in the traditional territory of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations.
"The connection to the people," said Al Mackie, an archaeologist on the project, "how they know his clan, how they know who his relatives are, that's amazing. You just don't get that in archaeology. It never happens."
Kwaday Dan Ts'inchi' means Long Ago Person Found, and he's believed to have died some time between the years 1670 and 1850. His remains were revealed after a glacier started to recede.
Since the discovery, scientists have been studying all facets of the man, including his clothes, tools, migratory patterns, even the contents of his stomach. But it's the DNA link to living people that has created the biggest stir.
"It's just thrilling," said Pearl Callaghan, a member of the Teslin-Tlingit First Nation. "The knowledge is so new to us; we're still in a state of amazement."
Her sister, Sheila Clark, said she was happy to be part of something special, but added, "it's overwhelming in a way."
"The significance is huge," said Chief Diane Stand of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations. "A lot of people are really happy and really excited."
Chief Strand said it proves that there is not only a link between people, but also between cultures as well. Long Ago Person Found is believed to have spent time both in the Interior and on the coast.
"The Champagne and Aishihik First Nations have a huge number of people that live in Alaska ... and this discovery has made those ties even stronger."
"We never stuck to our villages," said Art Johns, of the Carcross-Tagish First Nation. Mr. Johns, also a DNA-linked descendant, said it was common for aboriginal people to be nomadic.
Chief Strand said the findings are important for her people, especially the youth, who seem captivated by learning about their people's past. "Their eyes got big and they got so excited."
Chief Strand applauded the news of the DNA link, but she expressed some frustration over the scientific community's attitude toward cultural issues. Chief Stand said that for years, she and others have tried to contribute to the investigative process by telling ancestral stories, but they were discounted or not taken seriously. She said the discovery lends greater credibility to first nations' traditions.
"This reaffirms the integrity of our oral history," Chief Strand said. "Our oral history needs to have a place in your scientific world."
At the symposium in Victoria, many praised the collaborative effort in investigating the iceman and the role it played in the research.
While the work on the human DNA project has opened new doors and work will continue on establishing a fuller family tree, Long Ago Person Found's descendants said they finally have the opportunity to give their ancestor a proper burial. Because his lineage had never been established, no memorial potlatch could be held. Of the 17 people linked through DNA, 15 self-identify with the Wolf Clan, meaning the young man was most likely Wolf as well.
"We needed to know who he is so we can treat him properly," said Chief Strand, "with the respect and dignity he deserves."