The Tsimshian Sites

Period: Holocene North America - 12,000 - 100 BP
Region: North America
Location: Prince Rupert - 54.60° North, 130.30° West
Country: Canada
mtDNA haplogroups: A2
Y haplogroups: -

Longhouse Replica Replica Tsimshian Longhouse [16] Tsimshian Headdress Frontlet Tsimshian Headdress Frontlet [17]

The Paleoindian Cultures of North America:

While humans had expanded across all of Eurasia and Africa by 40,000 years ago, it was not until around 18,000 years ago that they appeared in the Americas. Archaeological evidence suggests that people began to move across a land bridge that connected Siberia to present-day Alaska that exist at the end of the last ice age [1]. This land bridge existed because sea levels were much lower as a result of a large amount of water being stored in the polar ice sheets. The bridge is thought to have existed for tens of thousands of years [2].

The earliest human groups to have reach North America likely followed clear corridors between the ice sheets that covered present-day Canada and the northern United States. There is evidence that they had made it as far as the South American continent by 14,600 years ago [3]. These people would have encountered mammoths on both sides side of the land bridge, but also many new local species such as mastadons and giant sloths [4].

The earliest cultures of North America are little know, as there are very few and quite scattered archaeological sites. By 12,000 years ago, as populations began to increase, more evidence for human activity began to appear. It used to be thought that these early sites were part of a pan-American culture known as the Clovis culture given the uniformity of the artifacts across large distances, although more local varieties have been discovered in recent times [5-6]. These early Native American cultures were defined by large elongated spear points that were used for hunting large game.

The Tsimshian People:

The central coastal region of the Canadian province of British Columbia is a rugged, mountainous region that is renowned for its high annual rainfall and thick forested landscape. Like much of the province, the region had multiple streams and rivers that support major salmon runs that have been used by the local populations for millenia [7]. The high natural resource abundances, especially salmon stocks, meant that coastal populations often remained in the same regions for thousands of years, living in villages with building constructed of cedar trees and elaborate totem poles, depicting spiritual messages and local wisdom [8].

Archaeological evidence for the Tsimshian people of the Prince Rupert region of British Columbia has shown that they have continuously lived in the region for at least 5,000 years [9], with some researchers suggesting that this might extent back beyond 6,000 years [10]. There are several tribes of Tsimshian people, who live along the coasts and somewhat inland along the Skeena River. They relied heavily on salmon fishing as well as shellfish, and there are often remains of shell middens near their villages that have been accumulating material for thousands of years [11].

While there had been some European contact in the late 18th century, it was not until the 1830s that European settlers moved into the area, bringing with them the smallpox virus, which devastated local populations [12]. It is thought that more than half of the Tsimshian people disappeared.

The Tsimshian samples from the GbTo sites:

The individuals in this sample came from seven coastal Tsimshian sites, labelled at GbTo, a few miles from the city of Prince Rupert. They numbered 10 females and 14 males, all of whom were carbon-dated to between 990 and 3,200 years old [13]. Most of the individuals were interred in shell middens, which also contained woodworking tools. It is thought that burials in shell middens was of ritual significance, and is a recurrent pattern throughout the region [14].

Genetic analysis of these individuals was done with the aim of understanding what changes may have occurred as a consequence of the smallpox epidemic of the 1830s [13]. It is thought that Native American peoples, who were genetically separated from other Eurasians for more than 18,000 years and had never previously experienced European diseases, had less immunity and suffered more greatly. The sudden presence of this disease may have changed the genetics of the survivors. Lindo et al. [13] found that there were differences in genetic profiles of pre-contact and post-contact Tsimshian peoples. They found that the certain immune system genes that had been under positive selection in the ancient samples shifted in frequency after contact with Europeans.

All of these individuals belonged to a single mitochondrial haplogroup, A2, which is most commonly found among Native Americans. It is derived from N ancestrally, and the A haplogroup more generally is found throughout East Asia. [14-15]. While there were multiple males in the sample, their Y chromosome haplogroups have not been published.


  1. Stanford DJ, Bradley BA. 2012. Across Atlantic Ice: the Origin of America's Clovis Culture. University of California Press: Berkeley.
  2. Gladenkov AY, Oleinik A, Marinkovitch L, Baranov KB. 2002. A refined age for the earliest opening of Bering Strait. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 183, 321–328.
  3. Dillehay TD. 1999. The late Pleistocene cultures of South America. Evolutionary Anthropology 7: 206–216.
  4. Waters MR, et al. 2011. Pre-Clovis mastodon hunting 13,800 years ago at the Manis site, Washington. Science 334: 351–353.
  5. Meltzer DA. 1997. Monte Verde and the Pleistocene peopling of the Americas. Science 276: 754–755.
  6. Bellwood, P. 2013. First Migrants: Ancient Migration in Global Perspective Wiley-Blackwell: Malden, MA.
  7. Ames KM. 1998. Economic prehistory of the northern British Columbia coast. Arctic Anthropology 35: 68–87.
  8. Maschner HDG. 1991. The Emergence of Cultural Complexity on the Northern Northwest Coast. Antiquity 65:924-934.
  9. Halpin MM, Seguin M. 1990 Tsimshian Peoples: Southern Tsimshian, Coast Tsimshian, Nishga, and Gitksan. In: (Suttles W, ed.) Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 7, Northwest Coast. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. pp. 267-284.
  10. Ames K. 2005. The North Coast Prehistory Project Excavations in Prince Rupert Harbour, British Columbia: The Artifacts. British Archaeological Reports BAR International Series 1342.
  11. Martindale A, et al. 2009. Mapping of subsurface shell midden components through percussion coring: examples from the Dundas Islands. Journal of Archaeological Science, 36: 1565-1575.
  12. HBCA Fort Simpson (Nass) Journal, 5 August 1857, B201/a.8, fo. 106; Margaret Blackman, During My Time: Florence Edenshaw Davidson, A Haida Woman (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982), 35-38; James Gibson, "Smallpox on the Northwest Coast, 1835-1838," B.C. Studies 56 (1982-83), 61-81; HBCA Fort Simpson (Nass) Journal, 19 October 1836 B201/a.3, fo. 75.
  13. 13. Lindo J, et al. 2016. A time transect of exomes from a Native American population before and after European contact. Nat Commun 7:13175.
  14. Starikovskaya YB, Sukernik RI, Schurr TG, Kogelnik A, Wallace DC. 1998. Mitochondrial DNA diversity in Chukchi and Siberian Eskimos: Implications for the genetic history of ancient Beringia and the peopling of the New World. Amercan Journal of Human Genetics 63: 1473–1491.
  15. Starikovskaya EB, et al. 2005. Mitochondrial DNA Diversity in Indigenous Populations of the Southern Extent of Siberia, and the Origins of Native American Haplogroups. Annals of Human Genetics 69: 67-89.
  16. Replica Tsimshiam Longhouse:
  17. Tsimshian Headdress Frontlet: