An ancient people lived in the Arctic a thousand years ago, leaving behind few clues to explain their heritage or sudden disappearance. Now a new DNA study sheds light on the so-called Dorset people, saying they migrated from Asia around 3000 BC and became the first settlers in the North American Arctic for roughly four millennia, the Smithsonian reports. Genetically distinct, they didn't mix with the other three migrations to the New World—including the Neo-Eskimo/Thule people who arrived a couple hundred years before the Dorsets vanished. The study's analysis of over 150 ancient DNA samples also explodes two earlier theories: that the Dorset people had descended from earlier New World migrants, and had survived into the 20th century on a Canadian island, NBC News reports.
The roughly 4,000 Dorsets also left us physical clues, like primitive stone tools, pretty figurines of ivory and wood, and evidence of small villages with 20 to 30 people each. They likely survived by leading highly traditional lives devoted to the land and resources, says study co-author Bill Fitzhugh: "One might almost say ... that the Dorsets were the hobbits of the Eastern Arctic, a very strange and very conservative people that we're only just getting to know a little bit." So why did they go extinct? Possibly due to climate change or inbreeding, the New York Times reports, or maybe the Thules wiped them out with advanced weaponry. By this theory, the Dorsets "were just no match for this onslaught from this Thule machine," says Fitzhugh. "They were, in a sense, sitting ducks." Yet the Dorsets live on in tales told by Thule descendants—the modern-day Inuit—as a race of "gentle giants." (See how the "first Americans" paused in their migration for 10,000 years.)