Company's test for Beothuk DNA called bogus by geneticists

A North Carolina woman says DNA testing has revealed that she is Beothuk, a descendant of an Indigenous people from Newfoundland whose last known member died in 1829.

'We call that being lied to,' scientist says of claim company can test for DNA of extinct First Nation

Carol Reynolds Boyce believes that she is Beothuk, even though the Indigenous people have been considered extinct since the 19th century. (Beothuk Tribe of NFLD and North America Reservation Nation/Facebook)

A North Carolina woman says DNA testing has revealed that she is Beothuk, a descendant of an Indigenous people from Newfoundland whose last known member died in 1829.

Geneticists say the woman's claim is impossible to verify, and the company that has been providing the DNA testing for Beothuk DNA decided to suspend it after receiving queries from CBC News. 

This portrait of Demasduit (also known as Mary March) is one of the few known images of a Beothuk. (Library and Archives Canada)

Carol Reynolds Boyce, 55, from Wilmington, N.C., said the Toronto-based company Accu-Metrics tested her, her mother and her brother, and responded that all three have Beothuk DNA, giving her the confirmation she always felt about her heritage. 

"When I was a little girl, my mother, she's holding me on her lap and she's saying, 'You got Indian in you,'" Reynolds Boyce told CBC News. 

Reynolds Boyce said her mother is from the central Newfoundland town of Gander, where she met and married her father, a U.S. serviceman, while he was stationed there. They later moved to the U.S.

Last year, she decided she would get her DNA tested to prove what she always knew.

"You just know," she told CBC Radio's On The Go.

Not enough Beothuk DNA available: scientist

​But Steven Carr, a Memorial University geneticist in St. John's who has studied the Beothuk, said Reynolds Boyce's claim is impossible to verify.

Geneticist Steven Carr bluntly rejects the claim that anyone can be identified as having Beothuk DNA. (CBC)

"We do not have enough of a database to identify somebody as being Beothuk," said Carr. "So if somebody is told [that] by a company, I think we call that being lied to."

The remains of two of the last Beothuk — Nonosabasut and his wife, Demasduit — are now at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, after their removal from a gravesite in Newfoundland in 1828.

Carr said he and his colleagues have done some analysis of DNA obtained from the skulls of Nonosabasut and Demasduit, the only Beothuk DNA  he is aware of existing anywhere in the world.

But he said there was not enough DNA to provide a comparative sample.

"To say to someone, 'Yes, you're a Beothuk' — that just can't be done," said Carr.

'A very small fragment'

Ana Duggan, a geneticist at McMaster University's Ancient DNA Centre in Hamilton, concurs.

While DNA tests may be able to determine the existence of some Indigenous ancestry, Duggan said, the mitochondrial DNA from the samples in Scotland is too small to make a definite comparison.

McMaster University geneticist Ana Duggan says sufficient Beothuk DNA does not exist to make an identification. (McMaster University)

"It is a very small fragment, and because we've observed them in two Beothuk samples doesn't necessarily mean that they aren't found in other Native American groups across the continent," she said.

"I think to try to assign something so specific on the basis of that would be misleading."

Harvey Tenenbaum, director of operations at Accu-Metrics, felt otherwise, at least initially.

"The name of the gene and its location is in the database," said Tenenbaum from his office in downtown Toronto.

He said that when studies are published, "We plug into all of that automatically."

Tenenbaum said the information Accu-Metrics was using came from a 2007 McMaster study.

"If we have it in the computer, we got it from somewhere." 

Late Thursday, however, the company changed its position. 

Kyle Tsui, a geneticist at Accu-Metrics, told CBC News the company would be removing any reference to the Beothuk from the company's database.