A new article in the journal Science is offering clues about the quickness of an Arctic extinction event. Around seven-hundred years ago, the Dorset dominated eastern Canada and Greenland. They would be the last of the Paleo-Eskimos.

Archaeologists know that the Dorset hunted seal and walrus through holes in the ice. Taking ice fishing to the extreme with that. Digs have uncovered their practices of shaman-like rituals with masks and carvings.

Then, they just disappeared. There are no living lines that can trace their ancestral origins back to the Dorset. What happened to them? A plague? Genocide? Assimilation?

The new study is answering that question with the possibility that they were a genetically distinct Paleo-Eskimo tribe that thrived in isolation for over 4,000 years, and then died off in a matter of decades. While the subset of Paleo-Eskimos lived for thousands of years, analysis of the DNA fragments points to rampant inbreeding. While not the singular contributing factor to their demise, it undoubtedly played a major role.

“Certainly they survived for almost 5,000 years, so they weren’t completely destroyed by inbreeding,” Dr. Willerslev said. “But it causes a number of medical problems, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that had an effect on them.”

Climate change is also being thrown out as a possible contributing factor. Even the slightest change in temperatures could devastate marine wildlife in the Arctic, wiping out a vital food source. Ice core samples show several periods of of temperature variations that were enough to nearly wipe out the Paleo-Eskimos multiple times.

Dr. Willerslev says the next step is further research. While assimilation has been ruled out with the Inuit tribe, the mystery still remains unsolved about what exactly happened to the Dorset.

Some food for thought. A relatively stable people for over four thousand years gets wiped out in decades. Maybe, we as humans need to learn a lesson here. Just because we are riding the gravy train of being at the apex doesn’t mean it won’t derail. Arrogance has led to downfalls before.

The full study can be found in the latest issue of Science.

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