Beothuk not extinct

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Steve Bartlett
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Mi'kmaq chief cites DNA results as evidence

The statue Spirit of the Beothuk stands overlooking the site where the Beothuk once made their home in Boyd’s Cove. DNA testing is showing a link between the Beothuk and other peoples.

Science is proving something Mi’sel Joe has always known — European settlers did not drive the Beothuk to extinction.

“Not by a long shot,” says the chief of the Miawpukek First Nation in Conne River.  

“They may have gotten to a point where they couldn’t find any more when they were looking, but that’s not to say they were all gone, and DNA will prove that.” In fact, Joe says it already has. “I know of DNA testing that has been done ... that shows there is a link between our people (the Mi’kmaq) and the Beothuk people,” he says, adding that’s happened in the past six months or so.

The Beothuk had lived in Newfoundland for centuries when European settlers and fishermen started arriving in the 16th century.

As the European presence spread, the Beothuk dwindled to the point where the last known Beothuk, Shanawdithit, died in St. John’s in 1829.

Over the years, a consensus has been that Europeans drove the Beothuk to extinction.  

But Joe says such sentiment “pisses me off … because it’s not accurate.”

He says Mi’kmaq oral history recounts that there were marriages between the Beothuk and his people, and also that the Mi’kmaq helped some Beothuk escape European pressure by helping them reach continental North America.

He remembers his grandfather talking about the Beothuk, and says there was always a hushed tone when he did.

“Among all of us, there is Beothuk blood somewhere in our genes, through the intermarriage that took place,” Joe says. “Not only through Conne River, but particularly on the west coast of Newfoundland.”

DNA testing on the remains of Beothuk people has been going on for years.

In 2009, the central Newfoundland-based Beothuk Institute said there were plans to test the remains of two Beothuks and then compare the samples with the DNA of members of modern native groups, including the Mi’kmaq.

And in 2010, a team of geneticists from Iceland and Spain announced they had discovered a strain of DNA in a small group of Icelanders which may represent the genetic survival of the Beothuk.

The theory was that the Vikings captured a female Beothuk — which the Norse called skraelings — and brought her to Iceland.

She is then thought to have had children and her lineage survives in the Icelanders who were tested.

Teresa Greene is the chairwoman of the Beothuk Institute.

“It kind of makes sense, but I don’t know if there is any scientific proof,” she says of the possible Beothuk-Mi’kmaq connection. “It does really make sense because they were around here at the same time, so why wouldn’t they (connect)?”

Greene says the institute has run out of funding to continue the DNA work, but she expects it will apply for more.

“It’s very expensive work,” she says, adding they appreciate the public donations for this work made at the Beothuk Interpretation Centre in Boyd’s Cove.

Joe notes there have been conversations in Conne River about conducting DNA testing themselves.

“We’ve talked a couple of times about doing that, and we’ll get to that,” he says.

Organizations: Miawpukek First Nation, Beothuk Institute, DNA of members Vikings Beothuk Interpretation Centre

Geographic location: Conne River, Newfoundland, Iceland North America Spain

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