A study published Thursday in the journal Science shows the first people to settle in the Arctic weren't Inuit, but rather ‘Paleo-Eskimos’ — a Siberian people not genetically related to today’s Inuit or First Nations people.

Eske Willerslev is with the Natural History Museum at the University of Copenhagen and one of the study's authors.

  • Scroll down to listen to Eske Willerslev's speak with Allison Devereaux of Trail's End

“You can say that we are settling a long debate in Arctic archeology about the Paleo-Eskimos. That is: are they actually representing a different indigenous population?”

Eske Willerslev

Eske Willerslev in Peary Land, North Greenland, sampling for DNA in 2006 with Claus Andreassen, former director of the Greenland National Museum and Archive. (Svend Funder)

Archeologists analyzed remains found in the Arctic and compared them with DNA of ancient and present-day Inuit.

There was no match.

The Paleo-Eskimos came from Siberia about 5,000 years ago and spread all the way from Alaska to Greenland before dying out around 700 years ago. Willerslev says the extinction seemed to happen about the same time that Inuit were moving into the Arctic.

Why the Paleo-Eskimos didn’t intermix with Inuit remains a mystery, and an anomaly.

“Almost in all other cases where we look back in the past and we see people meeting each other, they might be fighting with each other but normally they actually have sex with each other as well. For some reason, this just didn’t happen.”

Willerslev says the Paleo-Eskimos may have had cultural reasons for avoiding contact with outsiders. He found evidence that the group was highly inbred, with very little genetic diversity, suggesting that very few of them crossed the Bering Sea into North America from Asia.

Findings confirm oral history

Willerslev, a DNA research and evolutionary biologist, says the most fascinating part of the study is that it confirms what Inuit have known for centuries.

“I would certainly in the future pay much more attention to oral traditions among indigenous people because they could really guide us into understanding where are the interesting problems to be investigated scientifically.”

Inuit still talk about the Tunit people they encountered when they arrived. The oral tradition says the Tunit were very shy and would run away when approached.

There's nothing to suggest the Paleo-Eskimos were killed off by violence, but Willerslev says it's possible they contracted diseases from the Inuit.

Regardless of why they disappeared, their survival over 4,000 years shows just how resilient they were, even though they likely spent much of that time on the edge of extinction.