DNA Offers Clues to Greenland’s First Inhabitants

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A swatch of hair, so thick and tangled it could have belonged to man or bear, has provided answers about a mysterious culture and its origins half a world away.

The culture is that of the first people to have occupied Greenland some 4,500 years ago. Known to archaeologists as the first Paleo-Eskimo culture, it gave way to a second Paleo-Eskimo culture some 2,500 years ago and then 700 years ago to the Thule culture of the present-day Inuit peoples. Some archaeologists suggested that each culture might have descended from its predecessor, but proof required obtaining DNA from the earlier cultures and comparing it with that of the Inuit.

Eske Willerslev, an expert on ancient DNA at the University of Copenhagen, recently spent two months in the frozen wastes of northern Greenland. Dr. Willerslev wore a full body suit while digging so as not to contaminate samples with his own DNA. But human remains from the early culture are hard to find, and archaeologists have speculated that the dead were laid on the sea ice.

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