As the story in the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation’s Book of Legends goes, the supernatural being Coyote divided the earliest Indians into groups and settled them in different places, giving each group a different name and language. These ancients became the ancestors of all the Indian tribes.
Now the genome sequencing of Kennewick Man, who died in Washington State 8500 years ago with a spear point buried in his hip, has revealed that this ancient North American is indeed an ancestor—or at least a relative—of at least one modern tribe: the Colville, who nearly nine millennia later still live less than 200 miles from where his body was found. According to the findings, either he and the Colville shared a common ancestor, or he is a direct ancestor of theirs.
This genetic analysis, published today in the journal Nature, upends what many scientists have long thought about the controversial Kennewick Man—and could trigger a new legal battle over his remains.
A team of scientists led by Eske Willerslev of the Center for GeoGenetics at the Natural History Museum of Denmark analyzed DNA extracted from 200 mg of metacarpal bone taken from one of Kennewick Man’s hands. They compared it to ancient and modern DNA from both the Americas and eastern Asia, including genetic material from Polynesians and the Ainu of Japan. (Both groups had been proposed as Kennewick Man’s relatives based on cranial morphology, or the shape of his skull.) They also compared it to DNA voluntarily donated by living members of the Colville tribe. In all, the study included genetic samples from 1107 individuals.
It’s “very clear” Kennewick Man's genome shows “he was very closely related to living Native American tribes—most specifically the Colville,” Willerslev said in an press-only teleconference on June 17. He is not closely related to Asian populations.
The researchers say there are two possible explanations for the strong genetic link between Kennewick Man and the modern Colville. They both could be descended from a common ancestor who lived about 9200 years ago, or about 700 years before Kennewick Man hunted seal along the coast of the Pacific Northwest. Alternatively, Kennewick Man could be a direct ancestor of the Colville. The genetic differences between them would have been introduced later, through intermarriage with other tribes. (The Ojibwa and Algonquin are also kin to Kennewick Man.) Willerslev's team say they are leaning towards the second hypothesis.
This discovery is sure to recharge the controversy that has surrounded Kennewick Man’s remains since his skull was discovered on the banks of the Columbia River in July 1996 near Kennewick, WA, by two teenage boys trying to sneak into a boat show. Anthropologist Jim Chatters, who recovered some 300 bone fragments from river mud, first thought the man was of European descent. Later he and other scientists revised that idea, placing his origins across the Pacific based on the shape of his skull.
Five Native American tribes in the region, including the Colville, strongly disagreed with this assessment. They claimed Kennewick Man was an ancestor and asked to have his body repatriated for reburial under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a 1990 law that provides a process for museums and federal agencies to return certain Native American cultural items—human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony—to lineal descendants. The law was meant to redress the widespread raiding of Native American graves by treasure hunters and archaeologists alike that took place across the U.S. for at least a century.
At first the Army Corps of Engineers agreed to hand Kennewick Man over. (His body had been found on federal land administered by the Corps.) Eight scientists sued the federal government, arguing that the scientific evidence pointed to his being from Asia. Any knowledge they could gain from studying his remains would be lost if he were reburied. An eight-year court battle ensued, and in 2004, the scientists won.
Since then, Kennewick Man’s remains have been studied several times. Early attempts at genomic sequencing failed, but the technology has vastly improved since then, making even highly damaged DNA like his recoverable in some circumstances.
Just last year, a 688-page, peer-reviewed book about Kennewick Man edited by the Smithsonian’s Douglas Owsley, one of the plaintiffs in the 1996 lawsuit, was published. Nearly five dozen researchers contributed to the exhaustive tome, which documents the man's life. But it was published before this latest genetic analysis.
Kennewick Man isn’t the only ancient American to have his DNA closely examined. The genes of Naia, a teenage girl who died in Mexico 13,000 years ago, were recently studied; she has Siberian ancestors. And just last year the team behind the Kennewick Man research studied the genome of a child who was ceremonially buried 12,600 years ago in Montana.
There’s a certain irony in the Kennewick Man findings, Willerslev noted. If the scientists had lost the lawsuit, Kennewick Man would have been reburied, and his genetic history would’ve been lost. But because scientists were able to study him, they were able to prove the Colville and other tribes were right in claiming him as one of their own.
It’s worth reiterating that the Colville agreed to contribute their DNA to the study. Such research collaborations suggest the potential for better alliances between archaeologists, anthropologists, and First Nations peoples. “At times there has been a very difficult relationship,” Southern Methodist University anthropologist David Meltzer, a co-author on the paper, said at the press conference. “But American archaeologists have realized they need to do a great deal more … to bring the tribes in on their research, and work collaboratively with them. Mutual respect is really critical.” Perhaps in the future, battles like the one over Kennewick Man can be avoided.
What happens to Kennewick Man’s body next is an open question. For now, his remains are housed in the Burke Museum in Washington.