Ancient gut bacteria could shed light on First Nations history


Ancient gut bacteria could shed light on First Nations history

Sean Trembath



A researcher at the University of Saskatchewan is studying bacteria from the stomach of a man who died hundreds of years ago in an attempt to shed light on movement patterns and ancestry of early First Nations people.

In a study published last week, Treena Swanston, a post-doctoral fellow in the University of Saskatchewan department of anatomy and cell biology, amplified the DNA of Helicobacter pylori, a common stomach bacteria.

It came from the stomach tissue of Kwaday Dan Ts’inchi, a man found by three hunters in 1999 on the traditional land of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, located in northern British Columbia. The name translates to “long ago person found.”

The body was very well preserved, as it was frozen in a glacier. The man was determined to be around 19 years old when he died. Carbon dating found he lived sometime between 1670 and 1850.

Swanston’s is one of many studies done in co-operation with the First Nations groups.

Swanston and her University of Saskatchewan co-authors Monique Haakensen, Harry Deneer and Ernest Walker were among several research teams who submitted proposals to a committee responsible for access to the body.

“We wanted to look for any infection or normal bacteria,” she said.

This was Swanston’s first time working with “ancient” DNA.

“It’s a very unique opportunity,” she said.

The strands were partially degraded, which made for difficult and in some cases uncertain work. There were also concerns about contamination with modern DNA.

According to the study, H. pylori is mainly transmitted within families, especially from mother to child. This makes it useful in determining movement of populations.

Swanston theorizes that the frozen man may have been carrying more than one strain of the bacteria. Aspects of the DNA matched European strains, which may indicate contact between First Nations people and traders prior to the man’s death.

There were also sequences that matched those found in previous studies linking North American and Asian strains. “These observations are consistent with the idea that the first humans who migrated into the New World crossed over the Bering Strait from Asia,” wrote Swanston.