Case Closed? DNA Links 8,500-Year-Old Kennewick Man to Native Americans

Alan Boyle, NBC News, June 18, 2015

DNA tests show a genetic link between 8,500-year-old human bones found in Washington state and the Native American tribes that live in the region today–and those findings could finish off a 19-year-long tug-of-war over the skeleton, known as “Kennewick Man” or “the Ancient One.”

“It is very good news,” Jim Boyd, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, told NBC News. “It does fit right in with our view . . . We’ve always maintained that the Ancient One is one of us.”

Thursday’s online publication of the DNA results by the journal Nature will lead to a reassessment of Kennewick Man’s status, said Brig. Gen. John Kem, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Northwestern Division. The bones are currently locked up in a Seattle museum, but Kem has the power to hand them over to the Native Americans–that is, assuming the courts don’t stop him.

The nearly complete skeleton has been the subject of legal tussles ever since two college students found the bones in 1996 on the banks of the Columbia River, near Kennewick.

The story from the skull

Back then, Native American leaders wanted the Army Corps of Engineers to hand over the remains for reburial under the terms of federal law–and the corps was prepared to do it. But a group of scientists who wanted to study the bones filed suit, saying that the skeleton was not associated with a present-day tribe.

Based on the shape of the skull, the researchers argued that Kennewick Man looked more like the inhabitants of a far-off land–perhaps from the Far North or Siberia, perhaps even from a “Caucasoid” population.

After a series of hearings, federal judges sided with the scientists and told the corps to retain the bones for further study. An intensive round of studies is now finished, and today the 380 bones and bone fragments are locked away, out of public view, in Seattle at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture.

Just last year, dozens of researchers produced a 680-page book detailing what they learned about Kennewick Man. They concluded that the man weathered several wounds during his lifetime, was about 40 years old when he died–and that his narrow skull most closely resembled those of Pacific Rim populations such as Polynesians or Japan’s Ainu people.

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At the same time, other researchers were trying to coax DNA sequences out of 200 milligrams’ worth of ground-up hand bone that had been taken from Kennewick Man during an earlier round of scientific tests. The effort was led by a Danish pioneer in the analysis of ancient DNA, Eske Willerslev, director of the Center for GeoGenetics at Copenhagen University.

“The DNA was highly damaged and fragmented, which is very typical for ancient DNA,” Willerslev told reporters. Previous attempts to read the genetic code had been unsuccessful, but thanks to advances in technology, Willerslev and his colleagues were able to produce the equivalent of one complete read-through for the genome.

The verdict on Kennewick Man’s genetic heritage ran counter to the other scientists’ view. The geneticists ruled out a close association with the Ainu, Polynesians or other far-off populations. “It’s very clear that the genome sequence shows he is most closely related to contemporary Native Americans,” Willerslev said.

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