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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Disinterring the Past

Epidemics spread through First Nations communities in advance of explorers. Some researchers have suggested epidemics reached the Northwest Coast as early as the 1500s, believing the well-known epidemics from the Caribbean and Central America may have spread to the Pacific Coast through native trade networks and social contact. Some of the recorded epidemics in the Interior were known to have originated on the prairies during the historic period (early ​1800s). The introduction of infectious diseases from Europe and Asia into the Northwest Coast and adjacent areas, and an increase in the severity of warfare, had devastating effects on the people. 
Lacking biological or cultural adaptations to these diseases, First Nations were overwhelmed. Smallpox, influenza, measles, and whooping cough were recorded epidemics, with smallpox particularly recurring with devastating effects in the native population. In some cases, people who were sick may have otherwise survived if provided with basic care. First Nations health systems had never encountered these diseases and were unprepared to deal with them. These epidemics continued throughout the historic period and caused ongoing and dramatic population decline. When these epidemics struck, people died in such mass numbers that it was a common occurrence for bodies to remain unburied. 
With so many people affected by these diseases, at times regular food harvest was impossible. The disruption in harvesting during these times made matters worse with a lack of available food for the remaining tribe members and further reduced their immune systems’ resistance to disease due to lack of nutrients. Chronic diseases also entered the population at this time and included Tuberculosis and venereal diseases. It is clear that in some cases entire villages were significantly reduced in single disease events, with mortality rates ranging from 50% to 90% of the population. During this time there was a vaccine for smallpox, which was discovered in Europe in the late 1700s; however it was rarely provided to First Nations people. 
Without a written culture, First Nations lost large pieces of their oral knowledge when experts died off in large numbers during the epidemics. The population collapse seriously unbalanced traditional health care systems. These new diseases overwhelmed and infected the traditional healers themselves, while simultaneously discrediting their methods when they proved ineffective against new maladies. Healers were nearly powerless in the face of the new diseases. During this time, the smallpox epidemic undermined the power of many coastal First Nations, clearing the way for the colonization and repression that followed. The concept of terra nullius, or settlement of ‘empty land’ was advanced at this time, based on the recently depopulated landscape that resulted from these waves of epidemics. 
First Nations Health Authority
"This is the first -wide study - where we have population-level data, not just a few individuals - that spans 6,000 years,"

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"This is the first genome-wide study -- where we have population level data, not just a few individuals -- that spans six thousand years."
"We saw that there was [a] signal of positive selection on this gene related to immunity. That can be interpreted as the ancient group had adapted to their environments. Because the gene was involved in immunity, we can infer that maybe it was adapted to the pathogens in their ancient environments."
"After Europeans arrived and changed the environment, those genetic variants that were possibly adapted to the environment were no longer well-suited."
"It [the old DNA] would have been not neutral, but possibly had some detriment [in its capacity to withstand physical introduction by Canada's indigenous people to the new European-influenced disease environment]."
"We don't know what the mechanism is. We can infer there's a possibility that it [the genetic detriment] might be associated with smallpox. It suggests a huge drop in population."
Ripan Malhi, anthropology professor, University of Illinois
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Two Canadian First Nations, the Lax Kw'alaams and Metlakatia located close to Prince Rupert, British Columbia whose geographic heritage reflects their having lived where they are now located for at least the past six thousand years, agreed to cooperate with research undertaken by University of Illinois anthropology professor Ripan Malhi. Two people representing the communities undertook travel to the research lab in Illinois for the purpose of observing how the fragments of bone and teeth of their ancestors were handled throughout the research period.

There is a huge sensitivity to the disposition and respect given to aboriginal remains among Canada's First Peoples communities. The delegates from the First Nations communities being studied would obviously be curious about the conclusions that would result from the scientific anthropological investigation into their history and health background relating to conditions pre-contact and following European arrival in North America. When the conclusions were reached by the investigators courtesy demanded they be communicated for the First Nations' communities' information.

The paper that resulted from the investigation was published in Nature Communications. The genetic material that formed the basis for the study was on loan from collections held in trust by the Canadian Museum of History. And one of the results of their study was the affirmation that those two first nations had an uninterrupted heritage of belonging to the land for the past six thousand years. The DNA that was studied indicated that an immunity had been developed over evolutionary time protecting the tribal people from disease-carrying local pathogens.

A natural enough result within any geographically located population exposed to local disease-carrying elements in their environment through natural selection aiding survival odds. The DNA responsible for that level of local immunity was noted by the research team to have fallen from roughly the advent of European contact in the human remains under study. And a study of current members of the tribes indicated that most community members no longer share that particular DNA, according to Professor Malhi.

Dr. Malhi and his research team drew the logical conclusion that the old DNA, rather than providing a useful purpose at that point might instead have become harmful to the community members who had been subjected to a new, European-influenced disease-vector environment. The research team did not succeed in identifying precisely how that genetic detriment might have manifested itself, but pointed out that oral history out of the communities speak of massive outbreaks of disease corresponding to the time of contact.

Added to the exposure to virulent new strains of disease that the local population had no natural defences within their immune system toward, making them lethally susceptible to the effects of the diseases communicated to them, was the added reality of inter-tribal and tribal-European warfare and resulting social upheavals and the cultural alterations that would have resulted from these new threats to existence leading to fallen survival rates.

The research team's findings appeared to indicate that within the period encompassed between 225 and 125 years ago the tribes had lost approximately 57 percent of their genetic diversity. This data reflects a wholesale loss of population density as tribal people were felled by the calamitous incidence of diseases they had no natural immunity to.

Professor Malhi appears, from the success realized in this study area, to be prepared to continue this area of research, planning future similar studies on the genetic consequences of European contact related to other aboriginal groups who were located in Alaska, California and in Mexico.
Early history: First Nations -- British Columbia, Wikipedia

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