DNA from an an­cient skele­ton shows ties to Na­tive Amer­i­cans

The China Post - - LIFE - BY MAL­COLM RIT­TER

An an­cient skele­ton found nearly 20 years ago in a river in Washington is re­lated to Na­tive Amer­i­cans, says a DNA study that could help re­solve a long-run­ning dis­pute over its an­ces­try and cus­tody.

The skele­ton, known as Ken­newick Man, is about 8,500 years old. The new work ar­gues against ear­lier sug­ges­tions that it wasn’t con­nected to mod­ern na­tive peo­ples, the re­searchers said.

Most sci­en­tists trace mod­ern na­tive groups to Siberian an­ces­tors who ar­rived by way of a land bridge that used to ex­tend to Alaska. But fea­tures of Ken­newick Man’s skull led some sci­en­tists to sug­gest its an­ces­tors came from else­where.

Re­searchers turned to DNA anal­y­sis to try to clar­ify the skele­ton’s an­ces­try. They re­cov­ered DNA from a frag­ment of hand bone, mapped its ge­netic code and com­pared that to mod­ern-day DNA from na­tive peo­ples of the Amer­i­cas and pop­u­la­tions around the world.

The re­sults showed a greater sim­i­lar­ity to DNA from the Amer­i­cas than from any­where else, with a close re­la­tion­ship to at least one Na­tive Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion in Washington.

The re­search, by an in­ter­na­tional team of sci­en­tists, was pub­lished online Thurs­day by the jour­nal Na­ture. Pre­lim­i­nary re­sults were re­ported in Jan­uary by The Seat­tle Times.

Ken­newick Man isn’t the old­est hu­man re­mains from North Amer­ica to have its en­tire DNA code mapped, and sev­eral ex­perts said the new re­sults are no sur­prise. But Ken­newick Man isn’t just any fos­sil.

“It’s a very high-pro­file in­di­vid­ual and has been for a long time,” said an­thro­pol­o­gist Dennis O’Rourke of the Univer­sity of Utah, who wasn’t in­volved in the new study.

The Sci­en­tific Ar­gu­ment

One rea­son is the sci­en­tific ar­gu­ment over its an­ces­try, driven by skull fea­tures that looked more like those of Poly­ne­sians or other groups. Another is a le­gal dis­pute over what should be done with the skele­ton, which was un­cov­ered in 1996 af­ter two men stum­bled across part of its skull in the Columbia River near the city of Ken­newick in south­ern Washington.

Some Na­tive Amer­i­can tribes asked that it be handed over to them for re­burial, un­der a 1990 fed­eral law aimed at re­turn­ing cer­tain Na­tive Amer­i­can cul­tural items, in­clud­ing hu­man re­mains, to de­scen­dants and cul­tur­ally af­fil­i­ated tribes. The U.S. Army Corps of Engi­neers, which man­ages the land where Ken­newick Man was found, planned to grant the re­quest. But some sci­en­tists sued to block that, say­ing the bones should be kept avail­able for study.

In 2004, a fed­eral ap­peals court agreed with lower court de­ci­sions to block the han­dover, agree­ing with the sci­en­tists that the law did not ap­ply be­cause there was no ev­i­dence to con­nect the re­mains to any ex­ist­ing tribe.

It’s not clear what the re­sults of the DNA anal­y­sis will mean for the dis­pute.

One group that had asked for the re­mains, the Washington-based Colville tribe, do­nated DNA for the work. Anal­y­sis showed that Ken­newick Man is “very closely re­lated to the Colville,” said Eske Willer­slev of the Univer­sity of Copenhagen, se­nior au­thor of the study. He said DNA from the other tribes that had asked for the bones was not avail­able for the study, but that he sus­pected they are closely re­lated, too.

But he said he and his team took no po­si­tion on the le­gal ques­tion about cus­tody of the skele­ton. The work re­ceived no fund­ing from any Na­tive Amer­i­can group, he said. He met with mem­bers of the Colville tribe ear­lier this week to share the re­sults.

Other data show Ken­newick Man was “a trav­eler ... His peo­ple were com­ing from some­where else. We don’t know who that peo­ple (were), we don’t know what their cul­ture was,” Owsley said.

An­cient re­mains have been re­buried be­fore af­ter sci­en­tific study. Last year, 12,600- yearold bones of a baby boy found in Mon­tana were re­buried in a tribal cer­e­mony af­ter DNA showed links to na­tive peo­ples.

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