Photograph by Brittney Tatchell, Smithsonian Institution
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Although facial features of Kennewick Man, reconstructed here, suggested Asian relations, a new DNA analysis connects the bones to Native American tribes.

Photograph by Brittney Tatchell, Smithsonian Institution

DNA Solves Mystery of Ancient American Skeleton's Origins

Kennewick Man was related to modern Native Americans, renewing debate about reburying the iconic remains on tribal land.

DNA extracted from one of the oldest and most controversial skeletons ever found in North America, known as Kennewick Man, may call into question scientists’ case for access to the remains.

The fight started more than a decade ago when the military tried to return the bones to a tribe. A group of scientists successfully sued to block the reburial and to study Kennewick Man. They claimed that he bore little relation to modern-day Native Americans and was therefore not subject to federal repatriation laws.

In an ironic twist to this saga, a new genetic analysis of the prehistoric man—made possible by that lawsuit—has now undercut that argument.

“We can conclude very clearly that he is most closely related to contemporary Native Americans,” said evolutionary biologist Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen, speaking at a June 18 press conference. His team reports the new work Thursday in Nature.

When first unearthed in 1996 in Washington state, the nearly complete skeleton was thought to belong to a European settler. Then radiocarbon dating placed the age of bone samples at about 8,500 years ago. Chemical analyses of the bones, used to infer diet, suggested that Kennewick Man hadn’t grown up in the area, but had come from the north. Anatomical studies, particularly of his skull’s shape, linked him to Asian ethnic groups in Japan and Polynesia.

Initial attempts to investigate his damaged and fragmented DNA failed. Thanks to recent technological advances in DNA sequencing, Willerslev and his colleagues could compare genetic material from a hand bone to a database of genetic markers from people around the world. The best match was to northern tribes of Native Americans.

Pontus Skoglund, a population geneticist who studies ancient DNA at Harvard Medical School, says the results are convincing. “I am impressed,” he says. “They had little human DNA to work with, but they still managed to get reasonable data from it.”

For Smithsonian Institute anthropologist Dennis Stanford, the new research vindicates the lawsuit that he and seven other scientists brought. “I’m happy with what we did, and I’m sorry it caused so much angst,” he says. “But we wouldn’t know any of this had we not been able to study the remains.”

Stanford says that “human remains of this age are as rare as hen’s teeth,” and encourages further study of the remains to see what other lessons they hold about the ancient peoples of the Americas. (Read more about the first Americans.)

But it's not clear whether scientists will get that chance. “Many of us that feel that is very disrespectful,” says Jim Boyd, chairman of the board that governs the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.

A member of the coalition of tribes that tried to block studies of the remains, the Colville tribe ultimately decided to help Willerslev with his research, after Boyd’s predecessor visited his lab in Denmark. Tribe members whose identities have remained confidential donated their DNA for comparison.

The story told in that DNA suggests that Kennewick Man—or the Ancient One, as Native Americans call him—could have been a prehistoric cousin of the Colville tribe, part of a lineage that split off more than 12,000 years ago. Another option, favored by Willerslev: Kennewick Man was a direct ancestor of that tribe, and any genetic differences between him and the Colvilles came from mixtures with other groups after his time.

Colville tribe members discussed the significance of the research findings at a meeting on Monday. But no decisions about future actions, including legal action, have been made, says Boyd.

Also attending the meeting was Brigadier General John Kem of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for repatriating remains discovered on lands managed by the Corps—and tried to do so with Kennewick Man until blocked by the lawsuit. His team will assess whether the new research changes the skeleton’s standing in the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which governs the reclaiming of remains and artifacts by tribes that can prove a cultural affiliation.

“It’s premature to make any determination until we’ve reviewed how this new information ties into the laws of Congress and the United States,” says Kem. “DNA is one of areas you consider as part of cultural affiliation, but it’s not the only thing.”

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