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Thursday, June 14, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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DNA may offer clue to identity of iceman

The Associated Press

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JUNEAU -- The pin prick to draw Loretta Marvin's blood was a slight inconvenience but an extraordinary opportunity for her to help unravel the mystery of a man who died five centuries ago.

Researchers hope drops of blood from more than 50 Southeast Alaska Natives this week will help determine genetic links to the ancient man found last year on the ice in British Columbia.

"This is pretty interesting, very fascinating, to be able to find out and check back what is it, 500 years, and there is maybe a possibility I could be a relative," Marvin said. "It's just kind of fascinating to know what DNA can do."

The headless body of Kwaday Dan Sinchi, or "Long Ago Man Found," was discovered by sheep hunters in 1999 at the foot of a melting glacier in Tatshenshini-Alsek Park near the British Columbia-Yukon border.

Studies have shown he probably was in his late teens or early 20s and in good health.

Most of his body was preserved. It was found in an area shared by Canadian and Alaska tribes, linked by intermarriage, trade and commerce.

Kwaday Dan Sinchi's home is a puzzle, though.

"People are very interested to find out, if it's possible, which communities he may be connected to," said Chuck Smythe, an ethnologist with Juneau's Sealaska Heritage Foundation.

Hunting tools, a hat, robe and other artifacts were near the body. The hat and robe are dated between 1415 and 1445.

His finely woven spruce root hat was in the style of the coastal Tlingit of Southeast Alaska, but his robe was of Interior gopher fur. The hunting tools offer conflicting clues. Some wood is from coastal trees. Other wood comes from the Interior.

Researchers found pollen on the robe from a meadowlike area, from high alpine alder, from river valley vegetation and from coastal hemlock.

"There's four ecosystems represented in the coat alone, which means it was a well-traveled coat," said Sarah Gaunt, heritage planner for Champagne and Aishihik First Nations.

Champagne and Aishihik First Nations in Canada decided to take DNA samples from present-day Tlingit and Athabascan Tutshone people in Canada. In Alaska, the First Nations group also is testing DNA of people with ancestors from Yakutat, Klukwan and Haines. Results should be available by the end of the year.

Many donors lined up Monday and Tuesday to donate blood samples and share stories with First Nations workers.

Harryet Rappier of Juneau said she was curious to learn about her mother, who was born in 1903 in Klukshu, Yukon.

"I just can't get enough information from that part of the country," Rappier said.

The Kwaday Dan Sinchi study is one of two dozen under way by the First Nations and universities in Canada, Great Britain and Australia, Gaunt said.

She said the man's cause of death may have been exposure.

"There's quite a lot of stories here and in the Interior of people who traveled and didn't come home," Gaunt said.

Smythe, the ethnologist, said DNA tests in Cheddar, England, found a teacher who was a direct descendant of a person whose 9,000-year-old bones were found in a nearby cave.

There are no guarantees that will happen in this case, however. Gaunt noted that intermarriage may frustrate those hoping for clear-cut genetic answers.

"There may not be any matches at all," Gaunt said. "Even if we do find a match, it may not tell us he was necessarily Tlingit or necessarily Tutshone."

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