Scientists have found 17 living relatives of a centuries-old "iceman" whose remains were discovered in a melting glacier in northern British Columbia nine years ago.

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Remains of a young aboriginal hunter were found frozen in a glacier in August 1999 in the Tatshenshini-Alsek Park, part of the traditional territory of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations. ((CBC))

The remains of a young aboriginal man were found in August 1999, frozen inside a glacier in Tatshenshini-Alsek Park, which is in part of the traditional territory of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations. Scientists gave the man the nickname Kwaday Dan Ts'inchi, which means "long-ago person found" in the southern Tutchone language.

DNA testing has now connected the iceman to a number of people living in the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, located in the Yukon and northern B.C. The results were unveiled Friday at a science conference in Victoria, where the discovery was discussed.

Scientists believe Kwaday Dan Ts'inchi was a hunter, who lived roughly 300 years ago — but possibly longer. He appeared to be in good health when he died an accidental death on the glacier.

Among the findings, researchers have determined:

  • He was in his late teens or early 20s when he died.
  • He wore a robe, likely made from about 95 gopher or squirrel skins, stitched together with sinew.
  • He carried a walking stick, an iron-blade knife and a spearthrower.

But who he was and where he was going remain a mystery, scientists said. The hunter's remains were cremated and his ashes scattered over the glacier where he died. 

'It was very moving [and] overwhelming.' — Pearl Callaghan, relative of Kwaday Dan Ts'inchi

"He was certainly travelling. He had certainly been in different places, in different environments, just a few days before," said Richard Hebda, a curator at the museum.

"If you think of seafood, it doesn't stay long — yet he had seafood [and] crab in his digestive system," Hebda said.

Chief Diane Strand of the Champagne and Ashihik First Nations led a project to search for the young man's living relatives.

She said 241 native people from B.C., the Yukon and Alaska gave DNA samples for testing and the results produced 17 positive matches.

"All of those 17 people, and potentially their families, have the same common female ancestor as Kwaday himself," Strand said Friday.

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Sheila Clark and sister Pearl Callaghan said it's very moving and overwhelming to learn about their connection to Kwaday Dan Ts'inchi. ((CBC))

Pearl Callaghan and her sister Sheila Clark, of the Yukon, were among those who gave a DNA sample. Callaghan said she was told about the results a few days ago.

"The blood sample proved it that through the mitochondrial DNA that the long-ago person and myself and my sister, … we're related. It was very moving [and] overwhelming," Callaghan said Friday.

"I think this is going to be a very grounding experience," Clark said. "We all want to know our history and know that we are connected this way to somebody."

About 400 people registered for the conference, which runs until Sunday, said Lawrence Joe, heritage director with the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, based in Haines Junction in the Yukon.

"We want to be able to use the science to confirm our cultural knowledge, our beliefs and our family relationships," Joe told CBC News.

First Nations plan memorial

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A traditional First Nations dance is performed during the Kwaday Dan Ts'inchi symposium in Victoria. ((CBC))

While much scientific curiosity surrounds Kwaday Dan Ts'inchi right now, some in the Champagne-Aishihik community have also raised cultural concerns about the man.

"There's caution we're getting from some people, who have different kinds of beliefs on how human remains should be treated with respect and how that's managed by the community," said Frances Oles, the First Nation's heritage resources officer.

After the weekend's symposium, Joe said, the First Nation wants to meet with other aboriginal groups to find an acceptable way of saying goodbye to the "long-ago person found."

"We hope to be meeting with the clans and with the communities and the tribes and First Nations to talk about having a memorial potlatch that will bring closure from a cultural perspective," Joe said.