Modern Blackfoot people descend from an ancient ice age lineage

Nations of the Blackfoot Confederacy have long fought to maintain control over their land and water. Oral traditions and archaeological evidence indicate the Blackfoot Indigenous peoples and their ancestors have inhabited a broad swatch of North America for more than 10,000 years.

A study published today in Science Advances reinforces that connection. Genetic data confirm modern Blackfoot people are closely related to those who lived on the land hundreds of years ago . The findings also suggest Blackfoot people descend from a previously unknown genetic lineage extending back roughly 18,000 years ago, when people first populated the Americas —evidence that could bolster their claims to their land and water rights.

The results may be useful for contemporary people because they provide “a different kind of data to fill out the contours” of Indigenous histories, says Kim Tallbear, a University of Alberta professor of Native studies who was not involved with the research.

Today, the Blackfoot Confederacy shoulders the U.S.-Canada border, comprising the Nations of Blackfeet, Kainai-Blood, Peigan-Piikani, and Siksika. Blackfoot people know that their ancestors, since time immemorial, have lived across the Rocky Mountains’s eastern slopes and adjacent plains of what is now Montana, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. Indigenous oral traditions and archaeological evidence indicate that more than 10,000 years ago these ancestors pursued bison along valleys and lakes carved by glaciers as the last ice age ended.

But U.S. and Canadian governments and energy sector interests have repeatedly threatened these ancestral lands or stripped them away since the 1800s. Blackfoot nations have taken legal actions to try to protect or win them back.

A recent success came in 2023 when, after years of litigation, gas and oil company Solenex LLC relinquished its federal lease to drill in the Badger-Two Medicine area of Montana. Yet in 2023, Canada’s Supreme Court heard a case arguing that the Kainai-Blood Tribe can only negotiate with, rather than sue, the federal government over land they were shortchanged in an 1877 treaty—despite a lower court ruling that the tribe is owed an additional 414 square kilometers.

In such cases, Blackfoot oral traditions provide evidence for the peoples’ enduring presence. Archaeological research also documents inhabitants in the region dating to at least 13,000 years ago, when retreating ice sheets covered much of the land. Here, humans and other species crossing from Beringia along an ice-free path into the Americas may have emerged into the wider continent.

To consolidate and add new evidence for the region’s ancient past, Blackfoot member tribes launched the Blackfoot Early Origins Program in 2013, co-led by University of Arizona archaeologist Maria Zedeño. n 2018, the Kainai-Blood Nation and geneticists at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) signed an agreement outlining protocols and expectations for the genomic analysis of Blackfoot historic ancestors and contemporary individuals.

For the new study, six present-day community members contributed saliva samples for the analysis. The researchers also isolated DNA from the remains of four ancestors with the Blackfeet Tribal Historic Preservation Office as well as three ancestors held by the Smithsonian Institution. Radiocarbon dating showed these historic remains are likely between 100 and 200 years old.

Museum records indicate the ancestors were taken to the Smithsonian from Blackfoot lands, but it’s not clear exactly how or when. Traditionally, Blackfoot people put their deceased on trees or scaffolds before secondary burial. During the 19th and 20th century, during periods of disease and famine, some of their dead remained on scaffolds, decayed, and fell to the ground. Scientists and others are known to have stolen these remains from the burial grounds, which could explain how the Blackfoot ancestors came to the Smithsonian.

Researchers compared the genomes of the modern and historic individuals and found they belong to a unified lineage, supporting Blackfoot oral traditions that attest to their people’s presence here since time immemorial.

Next, researchers estimated when this lineage split from the major known lineage that leads to all other present-day Indigenous people who have been studied genetically across North and South America. They found that this split occurred roughly 18,000 years ago. That newly detected lineage “was very surprising,” says study co-author Ripan Malhi, a geneticist at UIUC. The Blackfoot genomes “didn’t seem to statistically fall within the same lineages that you had previously seen in the Americas.”

“The DNA study also provides the Blood Tribe/Kainai with a new line of evidence to help further treaty and aboriginal rights,” the study authors wrote to Science in a collaborative statement.

The identification of a genetic branch stemming back some 18,000 years “has a lot of implications in terms of the relations of the different early lineages to each other,” says geneticist Nathan Nakatsuka, a postdoctoral fellow at New York Genome Center who was not involved with the work. However, the samples only provided a small amount of genetic code and the paper did not report all data for privacy reasons. So, he says, the conclusions about how this newly revealed lineage relates to others “may not be entirely sure yet.”

Still, Nakatsuka praises the research for its collaborative approach with Indigenous first and second authors. ( Science attempted to interview the Indigenous co-authors, but Zedeño told the reporter that they declined the opportunity.)

Tallbear cautions that adding genetics won’t necessarily change the landscape of federal-tribal relationships: “We know Indigenous people were here before settlers. … It’s not a forgone conclusion that adding genetic information to what we already know about Indigenous history in the Americas is going to make a big difference.”

Keolu Fox, a geneticist at the University of California San Diego, says a major goal of such projects should be to train Indigenous genome scientists to lead these studies, to “allow them to prioritize the scientific questions that should be asked.” For too long, he says ancient DNA work has been “the most toxic field in genomics,” and encouraging the next generation of Indigenous genomicists could turn that tide.

It’s not clear what became or what will become of the ancient remains analyzed for the study. The authors noted that “human remains that were sampled for this study might be repatriated in the future.”