Grizzly DNA and Indigenous Languages.

I think every living Hatter who has ever sent me a link has sent me this Science story by Rachel Fritts, and if I wait any longer to post it I may start getting e-mails from beyond the grave, so without further ado:

The bears and Indigenous humans of coastal British Columbia have more in common than meets the eye. The two have lived side by side for millennia in this densely forested region on the west coast of Canada. But it’s the DNA that really stands out: A new analysis has found that the grizzlies here form three distinct genetic groups, and these groups align closely with the region’s three Indigenous language families.

It’s a “mind-blowing” finding that shows how cultural and biological diversity in the region are intertwined, says Jesse Popp, an Indigenous environmental scientist at the University of Guelph who was not involved with the work.

Here’s the Ecology and Society study Fritts is reporting on. John Cowan, one of the many who sent me the link, writes:

This sounded pretty fishy to me, but the underlying paper confirms that there are three distinct lineages of bears in the area that correspond geographically to the regions where the Salishan, Tsimshian, and Wakashan language families were spoken, and that these cannot be accounted for by geographical barriers like mountains, rivers, etc.

Thanks to all who alerted me!


  1. It somehow has to be linked to the traditional bear hunt and tribal hunting grounds.

  2. Nuxalk, Haíɫzaqv, Kitasoo/Xai’xais, Gitga’at, and Wuikinuxv

    Orthographically, the <v> marks a rounded consonant, and <z> is IPA /ts/.

  3. Thanks for that explanation.

  4. Dmitry Pruss says

    I didn’t share it, and I don’t believe in it. They haven’t demonstrated that they saw three significantly distinct, local bear population IMVHO. Instead, they show that the ancestral origin of the area’s bears is a cline (gradient) between “bears from the North”, “bears from the South”, and “inland bears from the East”. The true home areas of these ancestral subgroups are most likely outside of the study area. The study area is merely where the bear subpopulations migrate / diffuse / meet / interbreed. The area is selected in such a way that different human tribes are also in the North, in the South, or inland, and while there is only a loose similarity with the bear migration / diffusion geography, it may be enough to catch imagination. But any factor showing a diffusion pattern from the corners of their study zone would have looked the same.

  5. Rats! Well, it was fun while it lasted. (And OK, I exaggerated the number of people who sent me the link.)

  6. Trond Engen says

    Thanks, Dmitry,

    I hadn’t seen the news reports, so this was new to me today. I was going to say that the geographic overlap shown in Firgure 3 is unimpressive and that correlation within the selected area says nothing if it can’t be shown to continue also outside it.

    By unimpressive I meant that with the shape of the investigated region, any two three-way splits between large contiguous areas are probably quite likely to look similar. I was thinking about how to show that, But now I won’t bother.

  7. Dmitry: The western boundary of the study area is the coast. So at least there is a sharp transition, rather than a smooth gradient, going along the coast from north to south.

    The study is not about where the bears diffuse from, but about boundaries to their diffusion.

  8. marie-lucie says

    Nuxalk, Haíɫzaqv, Kitasoo/Xai’xais, Gitga’at, and Wuikinuxv

    Nuxalk is a Salishan-speaking group also known as “Bella Coola” (a transcription of “BilXwala”, a Wakashan name). Hailzaqv is the modern spelling for Heiltsuk, the name of a Wakashan group. The Kitasoo, formerly a Tsimshian-speaking group, and the Xaixais (also HaiHais, another Wakashan group) share the village of Klemtu on “Swindle Island” (named for a sea captain, not for an illegal procedure). The Gitga’at’ are a Tsimshian group also living on a small island. The Wuikinuxv, also known as Oweekinow, are another small group living in an estuary.

    Nuxalk is known for being located quite far from the other Salishan languages, being surrounded by Wakashan languages. It is likely that the Wakashan speakers, originally from Vancouver Island, replaced Salishan speakers in a number of lcoastal ocations, cutting them off from their congeners. The Nuxalk were river-oriented rather than coast-oriented, which is probably why they were not taken over by Wakashans, who remained on the coast.

    Unlike the other communities along the coast, Klemtu remembers a much more recent history. When the Hudson’s Bay company (which monopolized traffic in furs and also provided fairly large-scale transportation) switched from sail to steam, it needed large amounts of fuel. Swindle Island, which was not inhabited (although it may have been used for hunting or other seasonal pursuits), was covered with trees. The company recruited men from both Wakashan and Tsimshian communities as loggers, and the village soon had a permanent population when wives and families joined the men, and there was much intermarriage between the two communities, with many people being bilingual. During the heyday of English missionary activity, especially that of the Anglican Rev, William Duncan, his Tsimshian converts and students acquired considerable local prestige. In the 20th C some of the Klemtu Tsimshians elected to move to another all-Tsimshian, Christianized village, Hartley Bay. Only one high-ranking Tsimshian family, linked to high-ranking Wakashans, elected to remain in Klemtu and maintain an aristocratic presence there. Although they kept in touch with their relatives in Hartley Bay, their presence in Klemtu became smaller as the elders disappeared, while the younger people were more comfortable with Heiltsuk, then the de facto community language. The last speaker of the Klemtu “Southern Tsimshian”, born in 1914, passed away in 2013. She had grown up with Southen Tsimshian, the language of her mother, Heiltsuk, that of her father and later her husband, Coast Tsimshian (mutually intelligible with ST, and dopted as the Christian language by the “emigrants’ to Hartley Bay) and English in school.


  9. I wish the paper explained the sources for the language maps. For example, Nuxalk territory is quite different from the inland-only territory in this paper. The authors include representatives of all three language groups, so a lot of thought must have gone into these boundaries, and I wish they’d explained them in more detail, because these territory lines are one half of the crux of their argument.

  10. Yep, my husband mentioned this to me and had to repeat his understanding of the article several times before I got what it was supposed to be. I raised the same kinds of objections as were raised by commenters here, in particular the idea that finding random correlations between any two maps on the same boundaries is not necessarily a big deal.

  11. jack morava says

    On the other hand some kind of such proto-domestication seems plausible, in principle: grains get domesticated because people gather them, in doing so scatter them around their settlements: a feedback cycle starts, iterate a few hundred or thousand generations. It’s easy to imagine something similar happening, for example, with wolves.

    A tale I’ve been told of the Banff/Jasper park is that its upper end is troubled by bears coming out of the woods interested in tourists and garbage. When they become a problem they’re shot up with tranquilizer darts and humanely helicoptered a few hundred kilometers away and deposited remotely in the woods. The problem is with recidivist bears, who like coming down to the bright light/big city scene, who enjoy being shot up with tranquilizer darts and a free helicopter ride.

  12. @jack morava
    “The problem is with recidivist bears, who like coming down to the bright light/big city scene, who enjoy being shot up with tranquilizer darts and a free helicopter ride.”

    Not only bears, many of my friends would pay good money to enjoy something like this. Continue this for a couple of generations and we get a new distinct genetic group among the humans and the bears.

  13. cf. O. Henry’s The Cop and the Anthem.

  14. John Emerson says

    There’s a simple explanation: intermarriage.

    ““It’s over, now,” she told him. “It’s over. You have to go to your place and I to mine.” She sat up and put her sweater on.

    He sat up across from her, rubbing his nose with a paw and looking confused. Then he looked down at himself. She looked as well. Slowly, Majestically his great cock was rising.

    It was not like a man’s, tulip-shaped. It was red, pointed, and impressive.”

  15. David Eddyshaw says

    The very full and satisfying Hobson-Jobson entry


    Despite actually knowing the term Zanj, I had never made the connection with the place-name Zanzibar; yet another “Land of the Blacks”, to go with “Guinea” and “Sudan.”

  16. @Y:
    it looks to me like the language map in the paper shows the recent/contemporary zones where each language/nation predominates, while the maps at show the full extent of traditional nuxalk territory. but even if the maps in the paper aren’t any more recent, they’re clearly maps of people, while the others are maps of land & water. if you look at the map that shows village locations (as of 1920), you’ll see that the bulk of them are in the eastern part of nuxalk lands, within the red zone on the bears map.

    to me, what’s most interesting in the paper is that this correlation doesn’t seem to mark the edges of traditional territories, but of actual current/recent habitation. it’s less a story about Antient Relationshippes than about the parallel effects of colonialism on human and non-human people who share land and water. there may be an underlying story there about longtime relationships between particular groups of humans and bears – there certainly is one, it just may not be readable in population genetics and linguistics – but these current correlations are about now.

  17. David Marjanović says

    it’s less a story about Antient Relationshippes than about the parallel effects of colonialism on human and non-human people who share land and water.

    That makes a lot more sense!

  18. marie-lucie says

    rozele, David M

    it’s less a story about Antient Relationshippes than about the parallel effects of colonialism on human and non-human people who share land and water.

    Being familiar with the general coastal area and some of its inhabitants, cultures and languages, I don’t see this about having to do with colonialism. The effects of colonialism are most obvious in places where the inhabitants have been forced to drastically change their way of life, overwhelmed or replaced by a foreign group attracted by the nature of the land and its potential for exploitation. In coastal areas with ample food supplies from the water (fish, sea mammals, shellfish, seaweed) and the deep forests (bears, moose, berries) indigenous groups can maintain much of their traditional resource economy, linked to the local flora and fauna and their seasonal availability, while very rocky landscapes make agriculture impossible except on a very small scale (occasional kitchen gardens rather than corn fields or grassy meadows), thus discouraging potential foreign colonists expecting to “live from the land”. Along the whole coast, most of the inhabitants are indigenous and do not have a desire to leave the region except for short periods. The few non-indigenous ones usually live from fishing and often marry within the native community. On the maps, the various villages have their traditional names, not European ones given by colonists or missionaries (although the smaller villages might no longer be inhabited year round as modern boats make travel faster and larger communities possible).

  19. Trond Engen says

    It’s not inconceivable that different lineages of bear have specialized on different ecological niches (or maybe rather, areas that give advantage to different strategies for survival) just like humans. That might be true both before and after colonization. But if so, I’d expect the correlation to show up also outside of this oddly shaped box.

  20. Geoffrey Sea says

    Count me a skeptic for the following reason: The report implies that the Wakashans, Salish, and Tsimshians are distinctly different peoples with distinctly different languages and cultures and with an ancient division between them, but this is not true. The division is a matter of modern linguistic labels that are somewhat arbitrary. Salishan and Wakashan languages are closely-related and were both classified as “Mosan” languages because they share the same or similar word for the number 4: “mos.” They are better described as a continuum of the same family. They are also not as old as some believe, their ancestors having come, likely together, from across the Aleutians roughly 9,000 years ago — far younger than many other Native American groups.

    Based on linguistics, genetics, and folklore, the Tsimshian are also part of that group, just slightly divergent linguistically.In other words, the bears may differ genetically, but the people do not — they are all of the same group. How we divide them is a matter of our own projected categories.

  21. David Marjanović says

    Salishan and Wakashan languages are closely-related […] They are better described as a continuum of the same family.

    Not remotely. They share lots of things (words, grammatical features, sound systems) because they’ve been in contact for a long time – in other words, you’re right that the peoples and cultures aren’t sharply separated and haven’t been in a long time; but the most basic parts of the language families are quite different.

    The latest proposal is that Wakashan is (distantly!) related to Algic and… uh… Nivkh on the other side of the Pacific, and all three together may be very distantly related to Salishan.

    Based on linguistics, genetics, and folklore, the Tsimshian are also part of that group, just slightly divergent linguistically.

    …where by “slightly” you mean “like Spanish and Basque, whose vocabularies and sound systems have after all been converging for 2000 years”.

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