Ancient DNA confirms Native American affinities
Kennewick Man died about 8,600 years ago and was between 40 to 55 years old at the time of his death. In 1996, his skull and some other skeletal parts were discovered in the Columbia River, Kennewick, Washington State. The find was of interest not just to anthropologists but also to Native Americans, who refer to him as the Ancient One. The Plateau people of the Pacific Northwest claimed an ancestral relationship and requested repatriation of the remains as provided for under US federal law (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act or NAGPRA). The land where the remains were found is managed by the US Army Corps of Engineers, who announced that they were willing to hand over the remains. This in turn precipitated a lawsuit from scientists wishing to study the remains.
The plaintiffs’ claim was based on the morphology of the skull, which is long and narrow, with a narrow face, and a jutting chin. It is quite unlike the broad-headed, broad-faced appearance typical of Native Americans and resembles that of certain Pacific populations, in particular the Ainu and Polynesians. It was argued that Kennewick Man belonged to a population that reached America before the ancestors of the present-day Native Americans, and that the request for repatriation of the remains must therefore be rejected. In 2004, the plaintiffs’ claim was upheld by a judicial ruling.
However, subsequent discoveries have cast doubt on the claim that Native Americans are descended from migrants that replaced an earlier American population. Remains have been found that are even older than those of Kennewick Man, yet fall comfortably within the morphological range of present-day Native Americans. Other remains have yielded mitochondrial DNA belonging to haplogroups only found in Native American populations. Genetic studies have failed to find any evidence for a replacement of early Paleoindians by ancestors of today’s Native Americans.
It has been suggested that skull data has simply been misinterpreted. In one study, researchers applied statistical methods to skulls from all over the world, dating from around 15,000 years ago to the present day. They found that when shape variation was considered over a wide geographical range or over a long period of time, the skulls formed a continuum rather than discrete categories. The same pattern was also seen when New World skulls were considered on their own. The supposed Paleoindian and Native American forms were no more than extremes at opposite ends of a continuum, and most of the New World skulls fell well between the two extremes.
Following the 2004 ruling, study of Kennewick Man continued, but only now have researchers obtained ancient DNA from the remains. A team led by Morten Rasmussen has published its results in the journal Nature and they show that Kennewick Man is more closely related to present-day Native Americans than to any other population worldwide. Based on a comparison with Native American groups for whom genome-wide data is available, several groups are apparently descended from population closely related to that of Kennewick Man, including the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation (Colville), which is one of the five groups claiming Kennewick Man.
A renewed claim for repatriation now seems inevitable.
Rasmussen, M., Sikora, M., Albrechtsen, A., Korneliussen, T. & Moreno-Mayar, J., The ancestry and affiliations of Kennewick Man. Nature 523, 455-458 (2015).
Jantz, R. & Owsley, D., Variation Among Early North American Crania. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 114, 144-156 (2001).