In Inuit oral history, the Tuniit loom both large and small.
They inhabited the Arctic before the Inuit came, and they were a different stock of people — taller and stronger, with the muscularity of polar bears, the stories say. A Tuniit man could lift a 1,000 pound seal on his back, or drag a whole walrus. Others say the Tuniit slept with their legs in the air to drain the blood from their feet and make them lighter, so they could outrun a caribou.
But despite their superior strength and size, the Tuniit were shy. They were “easily put to flight and it was seldom heard that they killed others,” according to one storyteller in the book “Uqalurait: An Oral History of Nunavut.” The Inuit took over the best hunting camps and displaced the conflict-averse Tuniit. Soon enough, these strange people disappeared from the land.
This week, the prestigious journal Science published an unprecedented paleogenomic study that resolves long-held questions about the people of the prehistoric Arctic. By analyzing DNA from 169 ancient human specimens from Canada, Alaska, Siberia, and Greenland, the researchers concluded that a series of Paleo-Eskimo cultures known as the Pre-Dorset and Dorset were actually one population who lived with great success in the eastern Arctic for 4,000 years — until disappearing suddenly a couple generations after the ancestors of the modern Inuit appeared, around 1200 A.D. There is no evidence the two groups interbred.
The Dorset are almost certainly the Tuniit of Inuit oral history.
“The outcome of the genetic analysis is completely in agreement, namely that the Paleo-Eskimos are a different people,” says Eske Willerslev, a co-author of the Science study.
It’s not the first time his genomic research has synchronized neatly with indigenous oral traditions.
In February, when Willerslev and colleagues announced they had sequenced the genome of a 12,500-year-old skeleton found in Montana, the results showed that nearly all South and North American indigenous populations were related to this ancient American. Shane Doyle, a member of the Crow tribe of Montana, said at the time: “This discovery basically confirms what tribes have never really doubted — that we’ve been here since time immemorial, and that all the artifacts and objects in the ground are remnants of our direct ancestors.” The sequenced genome of an Aboriginal from Australia also revealed findings in line with the local communities’ oral histories, Willerslev says.
“Scientists are sitting around and academically discussing different theories about peopling of Americas, and you have all these different views on how many migrations, and who is related to,” he says. “Then when we actually undertake the most sophisticated genetic analysis we can do today, and this is state of the art, genetically — we could have just have listened to them in the first place.”
He was laughing when he said that. But he and many others are serious when they say that scientists need to revaluate the weight they give traditional indigenous knowledge.
“This is a pretty common theme. It’s really surprising that scientists and general commentators don’t appreciate the knowledge collection and transmission of indigenous peoples, given the wealth of knowledge about medicine, physiology, geology, earth sciences, wind patterns, ice fluctuations — the incredible scope of knowledge that indigenous people have and have sustained them in North America for tens of thousands of years,” says Hayden King, director of the Centre for Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University and a member of the Beausoleil First Nation on Georgian Bay.
“It defies logic that this knowledge they’ve generated and transmitted wouldn’t be accurate and helpful in myriad ways.”