DNA Reignited Debate over Ancient Skeleton


A 9,000-year-old human skeleton known as the Kennewick Man has been the subject of controversy for many years.  It is claimed as an ancestor by the Native Americans who say the skeleton should be reburied but a group of anthropologists won a legal bid to study the bones.  Now their results had reignited the debate.

The group said that the specimen’s features were not similar to the features of the local tribes and on that basis won the right to continue to test the skeleton.  However, a new genetic analysis of the remains has shown it has DNA that is closer in relation to Native Americans than anyone else.

Ancient One

The skeleton was originally discovered in 1996 on the shores of the Columbia River in Washington State and quickly saw a legal battle.  It is one of the most complete skeletons found and scientists quickly realised that it could provide an unprecedented glimpse into the earliest inhabitants of the continent.

However, the Native American tribes in the area called the skeleton Ancient One and said it should not be studied.  They asked the US government to seize the bones under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).  A counter lawsuit argued that the specimen had European features and therefore could not be closely related to the tribes.  The scientists won their case and studies began in 2004.

Anatomical studies showed that Kennewick Man had features in common with Europeans but also with groups such as the Polynesians and the Ainu of Japan.  Now, genetic tests have shed further light onto the skeleton using DNA extracted from a hand bone and compared with data from around the world.


The details of the study has been published in the journal Nature.  Study author Prof Eske Willerslev from the Centre for GeoGenetics at the natural History Museum of Denmark, University of Copenhagen said that the first questions approaches was whether Kennewick Man was related to a contemporary population.  And the genome sequence found that he was closest related to modern-day Native Americans.

They also used genome data from the Ainu and from Polynesians but there were no significant connection between the skeleton’s DNA and these population groups.  As a result, the scientists are sure that the remains are related to the Native American population.

Further detail revealed that the DNA showed the closest matches to the Confederates Tribes of the Colville Reservation, one of the five tribes who laid claim to Kennewick Man as their ancestor.  The four other tribes didn’t provide DNA but researchers think they would also be closest related.  This is due to the intermarriage between the tribes that has taken place for many generations.


Representative of the tribes, Jim Boyd, said that they felt vindicated and were pleased with the findings.  They now call for the Ancient One to be respected and returned to the ground.

It is unclear what will now happen to the remains, currently held in the Burke Museum at the University of Washington, designed as neutral ground.  They are not on display and access is regulated by the US Army Corps of Engineers.


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