Beothuk DNA in Newfoundland

Yesterday I wrote about a study that used SNPs to haplotype the Y chromosomes of ancient DNA obtained from skeletons found along the Yangtze River in China. The ability to extract and use SNP data from ancient Y-DNA is a relatively new scientific development. Indeed, the author’s of the study I highlighted yesterday stated: “The first reported ancient Y SNP data was typed from a Native American sample of an extinct tribe (Kuch et al. 2007).” I thought I’d briefly mention this earlier study as well since it contains a lot of interesting information.

The Beothuk were a Native American group that lived on Newfoundland at the time of John Cabot’s arrival in 1497. Although estimates vary widely, they may have been as few as 500 to 1000 individuals. The Beothuk avoided Europeans, and eventually disease and conflict led to their extinction in the 1820s.

Researchers set out to investigate the origin and diet of the Beothuk by examining the DNA of two Beothuk individuals, Demasduit and Nonosabusut. Their skulls, dated between 1819 and 1820, are housed in the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh. One tooth from each skull was removed and used for the analysis.

The female’s mtDNA contained mutations 16223, 16298, 16325, and 16327 (Haplogroup C), while the male’s mtDNa contained mutations 16093, 16189, 16213, 16223, and 16278 (Haplogroup X). To confirm the haplogroup designation of the female as C, the researchers cloned the area containing the HincII site at 13,259 and discovered that it contained the A-G substitution characteristic of Haplogroup C. They also identified the SNP at position 16213 in the male sample which denotes Haplogroup X2a. And finally, the researchers sequenced a portion of the Y chromosome and identified the C to T substitution that is characteristic of the Native American Q-M3 lineage. These results “do not lend credence to the proposed idea that the Beothuk (specifically, Nonosabasut) were of admixed (European-Native American) descent.”

Analysis of dentine collagen and tooth enamel stable-isotope rations suggested that a significant portion of the Beothuk’s diet consisted of marine foods, and that they drake mostly lake water rather than river water.

Isn’t it amazing what a single tooth can reveal?


Kuch M, Grocke DR, Knyf MC, Gilbert MT, Younghusband B, Young T, Marshall I, Willerslev E, Stoneking M, Poinar H (2007) A preliminary analysis of the DNA and diet of the extinct Beothuk: a systematic approach to ancient human DNA. Am J Phys Anthropol 132(4):594–604.

6 Responses

  1. MdM 30 July 2008 / 1:11 am

    Can you identify Beothuk heritage by genetic testing?

  2. Ardy 6 October 2008 / 9:15 am

    If I have the exact HVR1 as Desmasduit does that mean we could be related?

  3. Blaine Bettinger 7 October 2008 / 3:08 pm

    Ardy: it is possible that you are related, although with mtDNA the date to the most recent ancestor can often be very distant.

  4. Gerald 28 April 2009 / 11:53 am

    It is a shame nobody is taking this a step further and proving with DNA that the Beothuck bloodlines are mixed with the modern inhabitants (especially the Mi’kMaq) of Newfoundland. There is a lot of specualation that they intermarried with the Mi’kMaq and there is a tale of a sailor named Gabriel that hid amongst the Beothuck after jumping ship and married within the tribe.

  5. Kit 5 September 2009 / 4:14 am

    I’m X2a2 and am curious whether a FGS test was done on Nonosabasut or just the HVR1.

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