Quirks & Quarks

Catastrophic disease changed Aboriginal genome

The devastating effect of European colonization on the North American native population is recorded in their genes.
An Alhnah medicine man - Fort Conolly 1879 (H. Bullock Webster/University of British Columbia Archives)

New research shows that the European-borne epidemics of the 19th century that ravaged indigenous populations in North America may have even left a mark on DNA. 

Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald speaks to Dr. John Lindo, a geneticist at the University of Chicago, who reveals that the same immune-related family of genes that helped Tsimshian ancestors ward off illnesses before European contact, may have actually made them susceptible to European-borne diseases. 

CBC Quirks & Quarks spoke to Barbara Petzelt, who was part of the research team. She shares some of the oral history that has been passed down to First Nations communities in B.C. about European contact.


I work for the Metlakatla First Nation treaty office. My background is in archaeology and although I am not a Metlakatla member, I do have First Nation ancestry.

The Metlakatla First Nation has been in this territory for millennia. The archaeological record shows that they've got ancient village sites that date back as far as almost nine thousand years.

Following contact, western European diseases had a devastating effect on the populations in the Prince Rupert Harbour area with the tribes that make up the Metlakatla and Lax Kw'alaams First Nation.
Prince Rupert Harbour, British Columbia. (Miguel Borges)

It was a huge, highly populated densely populated region. After the introduction of European diseases like smallpox, it devastated the communities so much.

Some of the members had told me that so many people died all around the same time that they weren't able to do their proper death and burial rituals, and the proper feasting that usually goes along with that. Family members weren't there to carry out the rituals. With the huge number of deaths that occurred, they were even resorting to mass graves in some parts.

I can only imagine that it would have caused a lot of fear. People lived in longhouses, so in multi-family dwellings. Really, the close quarters would have made it easier for those diseases to spread to their family members.

Model of a B.C. longhouse. ( Blake Handley, Royal British Columbia Museum)

Traditionally when a person passes away, especially if they've got a high name, the regalia and the artifacts that they would have had would have been passed on to another person who would take that name.

So if that person had died of smallpox for example the germs would be on their items in their regalia and the blankets with the disease being in those items and being passed on to another person then that person would get the disease and then it would just keep going.

With modern science, we know that that's how it was passed. But at the time I don't think they would have known that by practicing their regular culture that they would actually be aiding in the spread of this.

To be able to show that the oral histories are being backed up by modern science is very interesting... to be able to use genetics research and as a different scientific tool to corroborate what we've known all along is pretty exciting. - Barbara Petzelt 

Additional Links:

Paper in Nature Communications: A time transect of exomes from a Native American population before and after European contact