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June 19, 2015

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Study could solve controversy over ancient skeleton

June 18, 2015
Courtesy of the University of Copenhagen
and World Science staff

An 8,500-year-old ske­l­e­ton found in 1996 at the Co­lum­bia Riv­er in Wash­ing­ton State has been the fo­cus of a bit­ter dis­pute be­tween Na­tive Amer­i­cans and Amer­i­can sci­en­tists, and among the sci­en­tists them­selves.

A new DNA study may set­tle the de­bate in fa­vor of the Na­tive Amer­i­cans. De­spite poorly pre­served DNA, sci­en­tists say they’re con­fi­dent that Ken­ne­wick Ma­n, as the ske­l­e­ton was named, ge­net­ic­ally re­sem­bles Na­tive Amer­i­cans more than an­y­one else. The find­ings were pub­lished on­line June 18 in the jour­nal Na­ture.

The Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle, the court-appointed neutral repository for the remains of Kennewick Man, also known as The Ancient One. The remains are not on display. (Courtesy of Richard Brown Photography)


In­i­tial stud­ies found that Ken­ne­wick Ma­n re­sem­bled popula­t­ions in Ja­pan, Pol­y­ne­sia or even Eu­rope. The find­ing helped block Na­tive Amer­i­cans’ re­quest that the bones be turned over to them.

A cra­ni­al anal­y­sis shortly af­ter the disco­very sug­gested he was Eu­ropean. But lat­er dat­ing of the bones based on the com­monly used ra­di­o­car­bon dat­ing meth­od re­vealed an age of about 8,000-9,000 years, long be­fore Eu­ropeans set­tled Amer­i­ca.

This sparked a le­gal bat­tle over the re­mains. Tribes in­hab­it­ing the re­gion where Ken­ne­wick Ma­n was found asked that the re­mains to be turned over to them for re­bur­i­al based on him be­ing Na­tive Amer­i­can and an­ces­tor to them. The U.S. Ar­my Corps of En­gi­neers, which man­aged the land where the ske­l­e­ton was found, was pre­pared to do so. But a law­suit by eight sci­en­tists ques­tion­ing his Na­tive Amer­i­can ori­gins blocked this.

The ac­tion di­vid­ed an­thro­po­l­o­gists, dam­aged rela­t­ions with Na­tive Amer­i­can groups and trig­gered a long-running le­gal bat­tle that ended in 2004 with a rul­ing in fa­vor of a more de­tailed stu­dy. This was pub­lished in 2014 and in­clud­ed an ana­tom­i­cal anal­y­sis as well as so-called iso­top­ic and mor­pho­me­t­ric an­alyses, to­geth­er con­clud­ing that Ken­ne­wick Ma­n re­sem­bles cer­tain Pa­cif­ic is­land popula­t­ions and al­so had cer­tain “Eu­ropean-like” traits.

But DNA anal­y­sis was­n’t in­clud­ed, which prompted a new study. 

“Com­par­ing the ge­nome se­quence of Ken­ne­wick Ma­n to ge­nome wide da­ta of con­tem­po­rary hu­man popula­t­ions across the world clearly shows that Na­tive Amer­i­cans of to­day are his clos­est liv­ing rel­a­tives,” said the Uni­vers­ity of Copen­hagen’s Eske Willer­slev, who led the new stu­dy.

“Our study fur­ther shows that mem­bers of the Con­fed­er­at­ed Tribes of the Col­ville Re­serva­t­ion that be­longs to the Claim­ant Plat­eau tribes of the Pa­cif­ic North­west, who orig­i­nally claimed him as their an­ces­tor, is one of the groups show­ing close af­fin­i­ties to Ken­ne­wick Ma­n or at least to the popula­t­ion to which he be­longed.”

The re­search­ers said it would probably be im­pos­si­ble to nar­row the man’s af­filia­t­ion down to any spe­cif­ic tribe.

‘“The DNA in the sam­ple was highly de­grad­ed and dom­i­nat­ed by DNA from soil bac­te­ria and oth­er en­vi­ron­men­tal sources. With the lit­tle ma­te­ri­al we had avail­a­ble, we ap­plied the new­est meth­ods to squeeze eve­ry piece of in­forma­t­ion out of the bone,” said study co-author Morten Ras­mus­sen.

Skull mea­sure­ments such as those sci­en­tists car­ried out pre­vi­ously are less re­li­a­ble be­cause there is more varia­t­ion in these mea­sure­ments with­in single popula­t­ions than among diff­erent popula­t­ions, ac­cord­ing to the re­search­ers.


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An 8,500-year-old skeleton found in 1996 in Columbia River in Washington State has been the focus of a bitter dispute between Native Americans and American scientists, and among the scientists themselves. A new DNA study may settle the debate in favor of the Native Americans. Despite poorly preserved DNA, scientists say they’re confident that Kennewick Man, as the skeleton was named, genetically resembles Native Americans more than anyone else. The findings were published online June 18 in the journal Nature Initial studies found that Kennewick Man resembled populations in Japan, Polynesia or even Europe. The finding helped block Native Americans’ request that the bones be turned over to them. A cranial analysis shortly after the discovery suggested he was European. But later dating of the bones based on the commonly used radiocarbon dating method revealed an age of about 8,000-9,000 years, long before Europeans settled America. This sparked a legal battle over the remains. Tribes inhabiting the region where Kennewick Man was found asked that the remains to be turned over to them for reburial based on him being Native American and ancestor to them. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which managed the land where the skeleton was found, was prepared to do so. But a lawsuit by eight scientists questioning his Native American origins blocked this. The action divided anthropologists, damaged relations with Native American groups and triggered a long-running legal battle that ended in 2004 with a ruling in favor of a more detailed study. This was published in 2014 and included an anatomical analysis as well as so-called isotopic and morphometric analyses, together concluding that Kennewick Man resembles certain Pacific island populations and also had certain “European-like” traits. But DNA analysis wasn’t included, which prompted a new study of the genome sequence of Kennewick. “Comparing the genome sequence of Kennewick Man to genome wide data of contemporary human populations across the world clearly shows that Native Americans of today are his closest living relatives,” said the University of Copenhagen’s Eske Willerslev, who led the new study. “Our study further shows that members of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation that belongs to the Claimant Plateau tribes of the Pacific Northwest, who originally claimed him as their ancestor, is one of the groups showing close affinities to Kennewick Man or at least to the population to which he belonged.” The researchers said it would probably be impossible to narrow the man’s affiliation down to any specific tribe. ‘“The DNA in the sample was highly degraded and dominated by DNA from soil bacteria and other environmental sources. With the little material we had available, we applied the newest methods to squeeze every piece of information out of the bone,” said study co-author Morten Rasmussen. Skull measurements such as those scientists carried out previously are less reliable because there is too much variation in these measurements within populations, according to the researchers.