Around 700 hundred years ago the Dorset people vanished from the face of the Arctic. The Dorset were a group of ancient “Paleo-Eskimo” cultures that had existed in the Arctic for centuries before mysteriously disappearing, leaving behind elaborate carvings and masks that hint at an extensive cultural tradition. An article published Thursday in the journal Science demonstrates that these artifacts are the only remaining evidence of this culture as no genetic lineage exists between these ancient peoples and the modern Inuit.
For years archaeologists have attempted to use the artifacts of the Dorset people as clues to solve the mystery of their disappearance. A common theory was that the Dorset culture had disappeared as the people assimilated with more technologically advanced Thule tribes, the real ancestors of the modern Inuit. However, the more the 160 samples of Dorset DNA analyzed by researchers proves otherwise. In a New York Times report, Todd Dissell, New York University professor of anthropology, states: “By using genetics and genomics, they were able to answer questions that archaeologists have been trying to solve for decades.”
Now, evidence seems to suggest that the Dorset were a single, genetically distinct Paleo-Eskimo population that survived in complete isolation for over 4,000 years before their swift and sudden disappearance. What is particularly remarkable about this find is that it indicates that almost no interbreeding happened between the Dorset and the Thule, a situation that Eske Willersev, an evolutionary biologist at the Center for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen and an author of the study, says almost never happens.
What then was the cause of Dorset’s disappearance? Several hypotheses have been proposed based on the findings of the study. Some researchers have pointed to an analysis of mitochondrial DNA to propose that regular inbreeding may have caused widespread disease, while others argue that rapid environmental changes may have depleted necessary food sources. In an article by the BBC, Prof William Fitzburgh suggests that the lack of any genetic cross-over between the Dorset and Thule may even indicate “prehistoric genocide.”