Grizzly Bear DNA Matches Indigenous Human Languages

Grizzly bears and humans have very similar needs in terms of diet and habitat. Find out about a fascinating study’s connection between bear DNA and human language groups in British Columbia.

One summer, when we were younger and more adventurous, my brother and I decided to follow the Cariboo Trail in British Columbia’s gold rush country. Along the trail, we learned about the history of the Cariboo Gold Rush in the 1860s, especially when we visited the ghost town of Barkerville.

Later, as we were paddling along the shores of the Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit, we noticed a bear lazily foraging along a ridge. He was minding his own business, and so were we, so we passed each other by without any trouble.

British Columbia is one of the last places in the world where large predators and their prey have followed the same ecological rules for thousands of years. That also applies to the indigenous peoples of the region, the Nuxalk, Haftzaqv, Kitasoo/Xai’xais, Gitga’at, and Wuikinuxv Nations.

Surprising Results from a New Study

Now, the journal Science is reporting surprising results from a new study by the Raincoast Conservation Foundation and the First Nations of that territory. The research team published a paper in the journal Ecology and Society outlining their accidental discovery of an even closer relationship between the indigenous peoples and grizzly bears. 

 It all started when conservation scientist Lauren Henson led a team of researchers examining grizzly bear samples gathered by First Nations groups over the past eleven years. The team went to isolated places and left piles of leaves and sticks covered with dogfish oil or fish-based slurry to attract bears.

 It may not sound appetizing to readers, but it draws bears like flies to honey. Professor Hansen explained that the brew “smells really, really terrible to us, but is intriguing to bears,” 

“Smells Terrible but Is Intriguing to Bears”

The team also erected a square of barbed wire near the bait. The wire catches small clumps of fur from each bear without harming it.

The researchers collected samples from 147 bears over a range of roughly 23,500 kilometres using this technique. The fur samples contain DNA. 

The scientists wanted to use the DNA to study how closely related the bears were to one another. So they looked at microsatellite DNA markers, those areas within the genome that change regularly.

Three Genetic Groups of Grizzly Bears

The markers enabled the team to analyze how closely related the animals were. They isolated three genetic groups of grizzly bears living in the study territory.

Yet, the team couldn’t explain why the genetic groups had remained so distinct over thousands of years. No natural barriers were separating the bear groups.

The genetic groupings were easy to map. However, they didn’t align with bodies of water, mountains or other topography. 

No Incentive to Wander Very Far

There’s nothing to stop the grizzly bears from travelling around and interbreeding. On the other hand, they also have no incentive to wander very far from where they were born.

The coastal forests of B.C. are so rich in biodiversity that the predators have all the resources they need close at hand year-round. Since there’s no need to migrate, the three genetic groups haven’t formed any migratory patterns.

While looking for explanations for this sedentary behaviour, the team came up with a remarkable finding. Professor Hansen explains, “We were looking at language maps and noticed the striking visual similarity,”

Three Distinct Human Language Families

Just as the region has three genetic groups of grizzly bears, it also has three distinct human language families. It seems that both humans and bears have settled in roughly the same locations, and neither species ever had much incentive to explore and interact with other groups.

There’s an old cliche that correlation is not causation, but this remains a fascinating finding. Peers who weren’t involved in the study are enthralled by its conclusions.

Jesse Popp is an indigenous environmental scientist at the University of Guelph. She calls the findings “mind-blowing.” 

 “Fascinating” and “Really Shocking”

 University of Victoria conservation scientist Lauren Eckert described the team’s work as “fascinating” and “really shocking.” She told Science that their observation “reinforces the idea that local knowledge and localized management are really critical.”

Jenn Walkus is a Wuikinuxv scientist. Her hometown is the remote community of Rivers Inlet, and she is a co-author of the study. 

She grew up noticing the connection between the needs of humans and bears within the ecosystem.

For example, she notes that a location with a steady supply of salmon would attract both humans and bears to settle there. 

Keep Bears and Humans in Mind

Professor Walkus points to studies by her First Nation considering cutting back on its annual salmon harvest to take the grizzly bears’ diet into account. She believes that this historic connection means conservation measures should keep both bears and humans in mind.

As we learn more about the stories of evolution and human cultures, we find that they tend to converge. During the industrial age, humans came to view themselves and the natural resources around them as separate and unrelated.

Increasingly, we’re learning that these two considerations are interrelated. We’re not separate from the natural environment, we’re part of it, and it’s part of us.

 Recognizing this Principle of Interrelatedness

Our future depends on recognizing this principle of interrelatedness. Then we need to find new ways to work it into our plans and policies for future development. 

In their paper, the team writes, “The co-localization of Indigenous language families and grizzly bear genetic groups emphasizes the need for continued locally-led management of this culturally important species, which will likely include population unit delineation by the sovereign Indigenous Nations with the authority and agency to do so.

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.

Learn More

Mind blowing’: Grizzly bear DNA maps onto Indigenous language families
Convergent geographic patterns between grizzly bear population genetic structure and Indigenous language groups in coastal British Columbia, Canada
Hunter-Gatherer Culture and Storytellers
Prehistoric Africa Revealed by Ancient Children’s DNA

Neanderthal DNA Leaves Winding Trail


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