Researchers found that the earliest settlers in Quebec produced more offspring, who in turn had more children and passed on genes more successfully than those left behind in the motherland or subsequent waves of settlers. Frontiers may have played a key role in and accelerated human evolution, possibly explaining why some genetic diseases cluster around certain geographic regions.
The research group focused on the Saguenay Lac Saint-Jean region of the Canadian province of Quebec, one of the first regions to be settled in the New World as a fur trading post in 1535.
Using birth, death and marriage records of 1.2 million Saguenay Lac Saint-Jean residents between 1686 and 1960, a Quebec/ Swiss team of researchers found that compared with French residents, women on the Quebec front married one year earlier, birthed 15 percent more children who in turn had more children.
The study, published online Thursday in the journal Science, showed human range expansion in real-time over several centuries, said Damian Labuda, researcher with the Université de Montréal and CHU Sainte-Justine Research Centre in Montréal and study author. He added he did not know what extent the results relate to other parts of the world with recent migrations such as Iceland.
The study focused on women's fertility, typically the limiting factor in population growth, researchers said.
Less competition for mates and more available land to found a family could have driven some of the reproductive success on the frontier, researchers said. Back in France, starter families inherited much of their land from parents.
The differences in reproductive success could not be explained by the mortality of children younger than 5 years, which was negligible between Quebec and French people, the study found.
Labuda led the research along with Hélène Vézina from the University of Quebec at Chicoutimi and Laurent Excoffier from the University of Bern and the SIB Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics. Vézina manages the BALSAC genealogical database created in 1972 and now completely digitized.
First settlers had increased rates of fertility, a heritable trait, which led the researchers to speculate that other colonization may have influenced other traits, such as human curiosity, leading to greater migration.
It is exciting to see how a study on a regional population of Quebec can bring insights on human processes that have been going on for thousands of years, study author Vézina said.
The research comes at a time when the Saguenay Lac Saint-Jean is seeking immigrants to raise its pool of skilled labors. In February, provincial official announced a C$743,000 (US$ 734,505) 2-year initiative to help attract immigrant skilled workers.
Due to the scarcity of labor, the use of immigration is a sustainable solution for the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, Minister of Immigration and Cultural Communities Kathleen Weil said during the announcement.