Skele­ton is an­cient Amer­i­can

Af­ter 19 years, DNA from Ken­newick Man proves tribes’ claim that he is an an­ces­tor.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Eryn Brown eryn.brown@latimes.com

In an ironic twist, an anal­y­sis of an­cient DNA from the spec­i­men known as Ken­newick Man sup­ports the claims of Na­tive Amer­i­cans that he is their long-lost rel­a­tive.

Af­ter com­par­ing short ge­netic se­quences from the skele­ton’s hand to the cor­re­spond­ing DNA from peo­ple alive to­day, sci­en­tists con­cluded that Ken­newick Man “shares by far the most with other Na­tive Amer­i­cans,” said Stan­ford Univer­sity ge­neti­cist Morten Ras­mussen, who par­tic­i­pated in the anal­y­sis.

The find­ing, re­ported Thurs­day in the jour­nal Na­ture, opens a new chap­ter in the 19-year saga of the spec­i­men. The nearly com­plete skele­ton was found in 1996 at the bot­tom of the Columbia River in Ken­newick, Wash., near the Ore­gon bor­der.

At the time, sci­en­tists were ea­ger to study the 8,500-year-old spec­i­men to learn more about the ori­gins of early Amer­i­cans.

But Na­tive Amer­i­cans in the North­west op­posed the re­search on cul­tural and re­li­gious grounds. So they tried to block it, cit­ing a 1990 law that re­quired Na­tive Amer­i­can re­mains and ar­ti­facts found on fed­eral lands to be re­turned to their tribes.

Sci­en­tists chal­lenged the tribes’ claim on the skele­ton in court, ar­gu­ing that fea­tures of the man’s skull more closely re­sem­bled those found in peo­ple from Ja­pan and Poly­ne­sia than those of mod­ern Na­tive Amer­i­cans. The tribes ul­ti­mately lost the dis­pute in 2004 af­ter nearly a decade of le­gal wran­gling.

No­body owns the re­mains, but they are con­trolled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engi­neers. They wound up in the cus­tody of the Burke Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral History and Cul­ture in Seat­tle.

Re­search has con­tin­ued on the bones. Stud­ies of the cra­nium have con­tin­ued to con­clude that Ken­newick Man came from a dif­fer­ent pop­u­la­tion than the an­ces­tors of Na­tive Amer­i­cans.

DNA could of­fer a more de­fin­i­tive an­swer. As long ago as the 1990s, sci­en­tists had tried but failed to ex­am­ine the DNA of Ken­newick Man, also known as the An­cient One.

They have been able to pull off the feat now, Ras­mussen said, be­cause of re­cent im­prove­ments in ge­netic se­quenc­ing tech­nol­ogy that make it pos­si­ble — and af­ford­able — to study DNA from an­cient spec­i­mens, which of­ten are badly de­graded.

Once Ken­newick Man’s DNA was ex­tracted from a tiny piece of bone, sci­en­tists com­pared it with DNA from peo­ple from Europe, Asia and the Amer­i­cas — in­clud­ing two mem­bers of the Colville tribe in Washington state, one of the groups that had claimed the re­mains.

The re­searchers tested whether the Colville tribe mem­bers might have been di­rect de­scen­dants of the pop­u­la­tion to which Ken­newick Man be­longed. The data sug­gested three pos­si­ble sce­nar­ios: They were di­rect de­scen­dants, with some out­side genes con­trib­uted when an­ces­tors mated with dif­fer­ent groups; they and Ken­newick Man shared an ear­lier com­mon an­ces­tor who lived about 9,200 years ago; or a com­bi­na­tion of both.

Ras­mussen’s team also re­vis­ited — and re­jected — the con­clu­sions of the ear­lier re­search on skull shape. Though Ken­newick Man’s nar­row cra­nium did not re­sem­ble the head of to­day’s Na­tive Amer­i­cans, it could have been in the nor­mal range among those who lived thou­sands of years ago.

Har­vard Med­i­cal School ge­neti­cist and an­cient DNA ex­pert David Re­ich, who was not in­volved in the re­search, called the new pa­per ex­cit­ing and im­pres­sive.

“It shows con­vinc­ingly that Ken­newick is a mem­ber of the same broad pop­u­la­tion as most present-day Na­tive Amer­i­cans,” he said.

What helped make the study so con­vinc­ing was the fact that Na­tive Amer­i­cans do­nated their DNA for com­par­i­son with the an­cient sam­ple.

Re­ich said he hoped more Na­tive Amer­i­can groups would do the same in the fu­ture, be­cause their ge­netic in­for­ma­tion would help sci­en­tists more clearly un­der­stand how an­cient Na­tive Amer­i­cans re­late to present-day tribes.

On Thurs­day, rep­re­sen­ta­tives of some of the tribes that were in­volved in the bat­tle over the re­mains said they were de­lighted with the study’s re­sults, but they would not con­trib­ute DNA for fu­ture re­search.

The sci­en­tists have “proven some­thing that we as peo­ple have al­ways known, through our history and our tra­di­tions and cul­ture,” said Ruth Jim of the Bands of the Yakama Na­tion. “I don’t think we have to sub­mit to DNA test­ing to prove who we are.”

The rep­re­sen­ta­tives said they had re­newed hope that they could re­claim the An- cient One for burial.

Study se­nior au­thor Eske Willer­slev, an evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Copenhagen’s Cen­ter for GeoGe­net­ics, def lected ques­tions about how the new find­ings would af­fect the repa­tri­a­tion bat­tles.

“We’re just sci­en­tists putting out the re­sult of our anal­y­sis — that’s it,” he said.

Elaine Thompson As­so­ci­ated Press

A CAST­ING of Ken­newick Man’s skull. Sci­en­tists hope to learn more about early Amer­i­cans’ ori­gins.

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