DNA Resolves Kennewick Man Debate: Ancient Skeleton Closely Related to Modern Native Americans

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, July 25, 2015 | Go to article overview

DNA Resolves Kennewick Man Debate: Ancient Skeleton Closely Related to Modern Native Americans


Bower, Bruce, Science News


Native Americans can claim Kennewick Man as one of their own, an analysis of DNA from one of the ancient individual's bones finds. But the investigation's suggestion that Kennewick Man had especially close genetic ties to Native Americans who want to rebury his bones is controversial.

DNA extracted from a man's 8,500-year-old skeleton, which was found in Washington State in 1996, is more closely related to that of modern Native Americans than of populations elsewhere in the world. A team led by paleogeneticist Morten Rasmussen of the University of Copenhagen reports the findings online June 18 in Nature.

Kennewick Man displays the greatest genetic similarity to northern Native Americans, especially the Colville, Ojibwa and Algonquin, the scientists say.

In 2004, a federal judge denied a request by five Northwest tribes, including the Colville, to bury Kennewick Man as one of their ancestors. Intensive scientific study of the bones commenced at that point.

Part of the controversy surrounding Kennewick Man's possible connection to modern Native Americans concerns previous reports that his skull looks much like those of native Polynesians and a native Japanese group called the Ainu. Anthropologists on Rasmussen's team found the same pattern but argue that, due to large individual differences in skeletal traits within a single population, no conclusions can be drawn about Kennewick Man's heritage from one skull.

Comparisons of ancient and modern DNA stand a better chance of unraveling Kennewick Man's place in New World human evolution, the researchers say. Of the five tribes participating in the lawsuit, only two members of the Colville provided DNA to Rasmussen's group for comparison with Kennewick Man.

"I expect that the other four tribes are also closely related to Kennewick Man," says study coauthor Eske Willerslev, also a University of Copenhagen paleogeneticist. At this point, there's no way to tell which present-day Native American group has the closest genetic ties to the ancient American, Willerslev says.

James Chatters, the first scientist to ever study Kennewick Man's remains, says it's too early to conclude that the ancient man has particularly close links to any Native American tribe, including the Colville. …

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