Final analysis of 9,000-year-old ancient DNA published June 18 shows The Ancient One is indeed an ancestor of present day Native Americans—as Indians have said all along.
The journal Nature is reporting this week that the genome sequence of one of the oldest sets of human remains ever found in North America—known as The Ancient One or Kennewick Man—“is more closely related to modern Native Americans than to any other living population.”
This contradicts the conclusion of a team of scientists that Kennewick Man was not Native, and therefore should not be turned over to tribes for reburial.
Professor Eske Willerslev, who led the DNA research at the Centre for GeoGenetics in Copenhagen, Denmark, said “currently it is not possible” to link The Ancient One to specific modern Native Americans. But only because the DNA database for Native Americans is limited.
Willerslev had DNA samples volunteered by 22 current members of the Colville Confederated Tribes for comparison, and he found them “to be one of the groups showing close affinities to Kennewick Man or at least to the population to which he belonged.”
This could be an important finding to establish a connection under NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) and ultimately lead to The Ancient One’s reburial.
Additional modern descendants could be identified as more Indian DNA samples are sequenced, Willerslev added. Many Indians are reluctant to provide DNA for study.
“We have always maintained that The Ancient One is a relative of ours,” said Jim Boyd, chairman of the Colville Confederated Tribes. The Colville are among the Five Claimant Tribes, all from the interior Northwest Plateau Culture, that for the past 19 years, have jointly claimed The Ancient One as an ancestor and teamed up to seek the return of his remains for reburial.
“We are getting very close now,” said Armand Minthorn of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, although more courtroom drama is likely.
Neither Doug Owsley, nor the Smithsonian Institution, where he is a forensic anthropologist, responded to ICTMN’s request for a statement.
The bones—a rare, nearly complete skeleton—were on the brink of being sent to the Smithsonian Institution for study when the Army Corps of Engineers seized them in order to return them to the Claimant Tribes, citing a finding by then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt that the remains were connected to the tribes under NAGPRA.
Owsley and seven other scientists successfully sued to halt the return—arguing the bones were too old to be Native American. U.S. District Court Judge John Jelderks agreed. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld his ruling in 2004 and the scientists got their chance to study the bones.
Owsley made international headlines from the dusty hamlet of Wanapum on the Columbia River when he announced the scientists’ findings to an overflow crowd at the local Public Utility District auditorium in fall 2012: Kennewick Man is not from around here.
Evidence showed he was a coastal resident eating a heavy marine diet, Owsley said, and is more closely related to the Ainu of northern Japan. Arguments from the tribes that the Columbia River held Pacific Lamprey that could be a source of marine nutrients, and that faunal evidence exists of sea lions coming upriver as far as the Umatilla Township in central Washington were discounted by Owsley.
“Well he’s wrong,” Boyd said.
Owsley has already published two books—the latest one, “Kennewick Man: The Scientific Investigation of an Ancient American Skeleton,” runs 669 pages to contain all the research, along with a facial reconstruction of The Ancient One showing Ainu characteristics.
This comes from the longtime practice of measuring skulls. James Chatters, a forensic anthropologist who was asked to determine if the skeleton was a murder victim after it was first pulled from the Columbia River nearly 20 years ago, also used skull measurements to create a wave of excitement when he declared Kennewick Man to show European characteristics.
“There’s been an ongoing critique of the skull shape. I think many people in the field largely have discredited that as a line of inquiry for understanding ancestry,” said Peter Lape, curator at the Burke Museum in Seattle where The Ancient One is being held.
Those measurements, and comparisons with other skulls for facial reconstruction can reliably identify crime victims and other fairly recent remains, Lape said.
“I think the danger is when you go back thousands of years and try to compare ancient skeletons to modern populations as a way to link ethnicity,” Lape said. “The connection (Owsley) makes to, say, Ainu or Polynesian populations? That’s comparing to modern Ainu and Polynesian. There were no Ainu or Polynesian people 9,000 years ago.”
In an interview with ICTMN in the wake of the 2012 Wanapum event, Owsley said Kennewick Man was too rare and valuable to be reburied. Advances in technology and greater understanding of the distant past create new questions to ask of Kennewick Man.
It was indeed an advance in technology that led to the very findings announced June 18. Tom Stafford, a colleague of Owsley’s had three bone fragments for DNA testing—still an emerging science a decade ago.
Stafford held onto the bones until there were better techniques to extract and sequence fragile DNA from ancient bones. Willerslev and his lab at the University of Copenhagen are at the cutting edge of working with ancient DNA.
Given the wave of past abuses, such as grave robberies, Indians are often wary about allowing sampling of their DNA.
Brian Kemp, a molecular anthropologist working with ancient DNA at Washington State University, said, “Here’s my prediction: people are going to be knocking down the door to get their DNA tested. I think this is going to open up a rush of people wanting to know if they’re related to Kennewick Man.”
“You know how we are in Indian Country,” Boyd said, “We don’t trust science a lot. We go by oral tradition.”
Still, noting the 22 samples offered by tribal members, Boyd added, “We thought it was very important to submit. We saw this as more of a last resort to be able to rebury The Ancient One.
“This is not just the oral tradition versus science. A lot of it is who the scientist is,” Boyd said.
“Owsley? He’s wrong. He’s promoted his findings and that damages us. It’s what we have to deal with.”
So what happens now? Jennifer Richman, the Corps of Engineers attorney assigned to the Kennewick Man case, said in an interview before the results were announced that the Claimant Tribes might have an opening if there’s “new information that could allow the court to reevaluate whether or not the remains are Native American.”
“Since 1996 when this issue started, the Five Tribes stated very clearly that these remains are Native American—even before the age of The Ancient One was determined,” said Minthorn.
“The scientific evidence will strengthen our claim for repatriation,” Minthorn said, adding the Five Tribes and attorneys have discussed potential options and soon will meet to choose their path.
Gail Celmer, the Northwest Division regional archaeologist and program manager for Kennewick Man, said “This opens a big new door we didn’t have in 1996,” when DNA testing was still crude.
“We assume this will be challenged like any scientific finding,” Celmer said. But the case is so unusual, she added, “We’re not sure if we wait to go to court, or if we can go to court and ask ourselves, “that a judge consider the new evidence.
Kemp said “I would hope we could continue to curate these (remains) long-term for scientific investigation. But that’s the scientist in me speaking… and I can appreciate the relationships between archaeologists and Natives have been awful, and I understand that.”
Boyd, noting The Ancient One’s swing from Ainu to Native American, “It makes you wonder ‘What else is wrong?’”
Findings—now shown to be erroneous—by Chatters that Kennewick Man was European and by Owsley that he was Ainu cause damage, Boyd said. “What is published has entered people’s belief systems… and that’s dangerous.”
Lape said many visitors still think The Ancient One is Caucasian. “Isn’t that weird? It surprises me all the time. I’d say 70 to 80 percent of the general public I talk to, that’s their impression. It’s something about the stickiness of information from 20 years ago that stuck in peoples’ minds.”
The tribes now have a finding to show that’s wrong, and perhaps can begin to change the perception of the Ancient One as Native to this place.
Boyd, a Lifetime Achievement honoree at the Native American Music Awards (Nammys) for his deft rock songs, was asked if he’s thinking about writing a song about The Ancient One.
“I have many times,” he said, “We have to wait for an ending.”