Nearly six out of 10 native people living in a 9,000-year-old community in Canada died when European settlers arrived, bringing diseases to which the local people had no immunity, according to a new genetic study.
Researchers studied the genomes of 25 people who lived between 1,000 and 6,000 years ago on the north coast of British Columbia, then compared this to the DNA of 25 of their descendants who still live in the region.
The research confirmed the oral histories of the Lax Kw'alaams and Metlakatla First Nation peoples, which told how they had lived in the area for millennia.
Scientists were able to show there had been a dramatic decline in population about 175 years ago, when European diseases swept through the local population. Their findings suggested there had been a “reduction in effective population size of 57 per cent”.
Joycelynn Mitchell, a Metlakatla woman who co-authored a paper about the research in the journal Nature Communications, said: “First Nations history mainly consists of oral stories passed from generation to generation.
“Our oral history tells of the deaths of a large percentage of our population by diseases from the European settlers.
“Smallpox, for our area, was particularly catastrophic. We are pleased to have scientific evidence that corroborates our oral history.
“As technology continues to advance, we expect that science will continue to agree with the stories of our ancestors.”
The researchers found that a particular gene variant associated with the immune system, part of a group called HLA, had been beneficial for thousands of years, helping the body to identify diseases.
But it proved to be a disadvantage after the arrival of European diseases and has since declined by 64 per cent, a fall described by the researchers as “dramatic”.
Pennsylvania State University biology professor Michael DeGiorgio, who took part in the study, said: “The only scenario compatible with this stark change in diversity is negative [evolutionary] selection, suggesting that previously advantageous HLA-gene variants became disadvantageous, possibly contributing to the population decline that occurred upon European contact.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies