The first study of the DNA of 8,500-year-old Kennewick Man has concluded he is most closely related to contemporary Native Americans, including those of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.
Northwest tribes immediately called for the bones to be turned over for burial.
The study by scientists specializing in ancient DNA analysis at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and others in a global team was published in the journal Nature on Thursday.
It contradicts the theory that Kennewick Man is related to a different people than Native Americans, based on a finding that his skull features are more similar to the ancient coastal people of Asia.
The Colvilles were among the Northwest tribes that originally claimed Kennewick Man as one of their own and wanted to take possession of his bones after they were discovered in July 1996 along the Columbia River shoreline in Kennewick.
However, a federal judge, swayed by the analysis of his skull shape, determined that Kennewick Man was not Native American and allowed scientists to study the bones. Full ancient skeletons, rather than bone fragments, are rare.
Attempts were made to study Kennewick Man’s DNA in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but DNA technology had not evolved enough until recently for attempts to be successful, researchers said.
For the current research, highly damaged and fragmented DNA, which is typical for ancient remains, was obtained from a fragment of a hand bone that had been used for other research, said Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen.
The mapped genetic code developed for Kennewick Man then was compared to that of populations around the world.
“We can conclude very clearly that he is most closely related to contemporary Native Americans,” Willerslev said.
Kennewick Man’s DNA was no more closely related to the DNA of the Polynesians or the indigenous Ainu of Japan — theorized to share common ancestors with Kennewick Man — than the DNA of contemporary Native American tribes, he said.
A closer look at Kennewick Man’s DNA found he was more closely related to some tribes, including the Colvilles, than others.
The Colville tribe cooperated with the study, providing DNA samples. But it is possible that other tribes that also made claims for Kennewick Man under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act could be closely related, Willerslev said.
The Yakamas, Umatillas and Nez Perce, all of whom lived seasonally in the Tri-City area, also claimed the bones.
“The tribes have been intermarrying each other for many, many years, as far back as anyone could remember,” Willerslev said.
His expectation is that those tribes would be as closely related to Kennewick Man as the Colvilles, although that has not been tested, he said. Those tribes did not contribute DNA for the study.
The limited DNA database for modern Native American groups, particularly in the United States, prevents scientists from identifying which group is most closely related to Kennewick Man, Willerslev said.
There is some difference between the DNA of the Colville and Kennewick Man.
The most likely scenario is that the Colvilles are direct descendents of the population to which Kennewick man belonged, said Rasmus Nielsen, of the University of Copenhagen and the University of California, Berkeley.
However, the DNA does not match exactly because of some relatively minor changes to the Colville gene pool in the last 8,500 years, likely by contact with other Native American groups.
The other scenario is that about 700 years before Kennewick Man lived, he and the Colvilles had a common ancestor and then their family lines diverged, Nielsen said.
Willerslev met with representatives of the Colvilles earlier this week and said they were excited about the study’s findings.
There’s some irony that the scientific study, which was allowed because Kennewick Man was suspected of not being Native American, showed that he likely was, he said.
Jim Boyd, chairman of the Colville governing council, said Thursday that the findings will aid tribal efforts to rebury the remains.
“We have always maintained the belief that the Ancient One was one of us,” he said, using the tribal term for Kennewick Man.
The Yakama Nation demanded that the Ancient One be immediately returned so a proper burial could be done.
“We come from the land. And after our time on these lands we return to the land, just as the Ancient One did,” the Yakama Nation said in a statement.
The continued advocacy of scientific studies on the skeleton will only lead to confusion and dishonor to everyone involved, the statement said.
The skeleton is stored at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle, but the Army Corps of Engineers has control over the bones because they were found on Corps land.
Willerslev said the DNA study team took no position on the legal question about custody of the skeleton.
But Doug Owsley, one of the scientists who successfully sued to allow the bones to be studied, said he doesn’t think the new results connect the skeleton clearly enough to the Colvilles to justify handing them over under the federal law.
Owsley is the division head for physical anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.
In 2012 he updated tribes on research on the ancient bones, saying Kennewick Man was apparently just a visitor to the area of present-day Kennewick. An isotopic analysis of his bones shows he most likely ate a coastal diet based on marine proteins, such as seals.
“His people were coming from somewhere else,” Owsley said. “We don’t know who that people (were), we don’t know what their culture was.”
The theory that Kennewick Man resembled Asian coastal populations has been interpreted as indicating that he was a descendant of a population that migrated earlier than, and independently of, the population that gave rise to modern Native Americans, according to the study published in Nature.
But authors of the study, titled the Ancestry and Affiliations of Kennewick Man, said there is enough variation among the anatomy of individuals within a related population to make conclusions about ancestry unreliable if they are based on the anatomy of a single person, such as Kennewick Man.
Hundreds of ancient people would need to be studied to make associations between populations, they said.
Kennewick Man’s age has been estimated at 9,300 years, but researchers preparing the new study are saying he lived 8,500 years ago based on calibrated radiocarbon dating. The study was paid for by two Danish nonprofit groups.