The skull in the eroded riverbank belonged to a man with a narrow, projecting face. The archeologist who excavated the bones along the Columbia River near Kennewick, Wash., thought he was looking at the remains of a white man, probably a pioneer. Then further analysis showed the skeleton to be thousands of years old. Confusion reigned. People asked: What was a white man doing in the Pacific Northwest back in the Stone Age?
So began the tortuous tale of the Kennewick Man, a hunter who in life had five broken ribs and a spear point lodged in his hip, and in death a knack for generating scientific and cultural controversy.
Last year, scientists published a comprehensive book, co-edited by Smithsonian Institution forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley, which concluded that Kennewick Man appeared to be more closely related to the indigenous Ainu people of Japan and today’s Polynesians than to modern Native Americans. Owsley and colleagues said he came from the frozen north; he conceivably was born in Siberia, descended from a population of coastal-dwelling East Asians that not only reached North America but also gave rise to the Ainu and the Polynesians.
But on Thursday, a report published in the journal Nature rejected that scenario, citing the first analysis of genetic material extracted from Kennewick Man. He was, the report said, a Native American after all.
The genetic findings could have legal ramifications in the long battle between scientists, who say the 8,500-year-old remains are a national scientific treasure, and Native American tribes that claim the mystery man as an ancestor and seek to rebury him.
“We have maintained the belief that the Ancient One is, in fact, one of us, so we’ve never strayed from that theory. So it is good news,” said Jim Boyd, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. The report linked the remains to the Colville tribes.
The genetic evidence directly challenges conclusions based largely on measurements of the skull. From the very beginning, the people studying Kennewick Man noticed that he didn’t look like a Native American, and the new report doesn’t dispute that. He really does look Ainu or Polynesian.
That fact has led scientists such as Owsley, of the National Museum of Natural History, to view Kennewick Man as most likely a member of a population distinct from the ancestors of Native Americans. Native Americans are descended from people who, during a period of lower sea levels, walked to Alaska from Siberia over the Bering Land Bridge.
After analyzing the degraded fragments of DNA from a hand bone, the authors of the Nature paper concluded that Kennewick Man shared close ancestry with Native Americans — especially the Colville tribes — rather than with native populations in Canada or South America.
“Kennewick Man is more closely related to Native Americans than to any other population worldwide,” said Morten Rasmussen, a post-doctoral fellow at Stanford University and the University of Copenhagen, who was the lead author of the report. “We specifically tested Polynesians, Ainu, Europeans . . . and, in all cases, Kennewick Man comes out closest to Native American populations.”
So why doesn’t his skull look like that of a Native American? Rasmussen said it’s likely just a case of natural variation in appearance.
His team does not believe that it is possible to take the anatomical features of one individual, such as Kennewick Man, and draw broad conclusions about a relationship to a larger population of people. “Because there’s large variation within populations, a single individual is not representative,” he said.
But there’s another possible explanation that’s perhaps even more dramatic: Native Americans may have changed in their appearance over the course of the past 8,500 years, said Deborah Bolnick, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Texas, who was not involved in the study.
She said the new genetic evidence “is an important contribution in showing that, despite these different skeletal features, this individual still was biologically related to both ancient and contemporary Native Americans.”
The Smithsonian’s Owsley and archeologist James Chatters, who excavated most of the bones, pointed out that the study relies on sparse genetic sampling of Native Americans.
“I think it’s extremely important to stress that these results that they’re presenting right now do not tie Kennewick Man exclusively to one tribe,” Owsley said. “There’s really no way yet known to connect this ancient individual with any modern tribe or individual. You’re talking about some 435 generations, and you can’t just link him to any present-day group.”
Rasmussen concedes that most Native American groups have been reluctant to participate in genetic testing. The Nature report shows a genetic relationship with the Colville group, which agreed to participate in the study, but four other tribes that also have claimed Kennewick Man as an ancestor did not participate.
The genetic analysis could not conclusively state that Kennewick Man was a direct ancestor of the modern Colvilles; one interpretation of the data suggested they had a common ancestor who lived about 700 years before Kennewick Man roamed the Pacific Northwest.
The discovery of the skeleton led to a protracted court fight between scientists and Native American tribes who wanted the bones returned, as usually required under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The scientists said he didn’t look like a Native American, and his remains should be exempt from NAGPRA.
The scientists won. The remains are now in the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle. The Army Corps of Engineers has legal custody.
“The Corps will certainly review those findings, and will be using this review and other information to determine if, and if so how, NAGPRA applies. We will do this as quickly as possible,” Army Corps spokeswoman Michael A. Coffey said.
It is extremely difficult to take genetic samples from bones that are thousands of years old. Earlier efforts to sequence the genome of Kennewick Man failed. But then came a team largely based in Denmark, with new techniques for sampling and analyzing degraded DNA.
In a teleconference with reporters, Eske Willerslev, a co-author of the paper, acknowledged an obvious irony: Had the tribes prevailed early on, scientists would have been unable to do the DNA analysis that has now found a genetic connection to the modern tribes.
But Boyd, the Colville tribal chairman, said his people didn’t need the affirmation of the scientific community, because they had their oral tradition. He saw no need for further scientific study of the skeleton.
“Our oral traditions have basically told us, through that process, that this is a relative of ours. This is our relation. This is our ancestor,” Boyd said. “This person deserves to be buried respectfully and rest in peace. You know how science is — it can keep on going on and on forever. We can always wait for a new technology, but we’re still not sure they’re ever going to find out anything new, and I’m not sure we can wait for that.”