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Case Closed? DNA Links 8,500-Year-Old Kennewick Man to Native Americans

In this July 24, 1997 file photo, a plastic casting of the skull from the bones known as Kennewick Man, is seen in Richland, Wash. A scientist who studies the ancient skeleton known as Kennewick Man says he wasn't from the Columbia River valley where his bones were buried. Smithsonian anthropologist Doug Owsley told tribal representatives that isotopes in the bones indicate Kennewick Man was a hunter of marine mammals, such as seals and that he lived most of his life on the coast. ELAINE THOMPSON / AP file

SEATTLE — DNA tests show a genetic link between 8,500-year-old human bones found in Washington state and the Native American tribes that live in the region today — and those findings could finish off a 19-year-long tug-of-war over the skeleton, known as "Kennewick Man" or "the Ancient One."

"It is very good news," Jim Boyd, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, told NBC News. "It does fit right in with our view ... We've always maintained that the Ancient One is one of us."

Thursday's online publication of the DNA results by the journal Nature will lead to a reassessment of Kennewick Man's status, said Brig. Gen. John Kem, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Northwestern Division. The bones are currently locked up in a Seattle museum, but Kem has the power to hand them over to the Native Americans — that is, assuming the courts don't stop him.

The nearly complete skeleton has been the subject of legal tussles ever since two college students found the bones in 1996 on the banks of the Columbia River, near Kennewick.

The story from the skull

Back then, Native American leaders wanted the Army Corps of Engineers to hand over the remains for reburial under the terms of federal law — and the corps was prepared to do it. But a group of scientists who wanted to study the bones filed suit, saying that the skeleton was not associated with a present-day tribe.

Image: Douglas Owsley
Douglas Owsley of the Smithsonian Institution examines the right thighbone of the Kennewick Man skeleton in an effort to determine the original position of the body in the ground, and its displacement from natural processes prior to recovery. Owsley was one of the scientists who successfully sued the federal government to get access to the bones. Chip Clark / Smithsonian Institution via AP file

Based on the shape of the skull, the researchers argued that Kennewick Man looked more like the inhabitants of a far-off land — perhaps from the Far North or Siberia, perhaps even from a "Caucasoid" population.

After a series of hearings, federal judges sided with the scientists and told the corps to retain the bones for further study. An intensive round of studies is now finished, and today the 380 bones and bone fragments are locked away, out of public view, in Seattle at the University of Washington's Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture.

Just last year, dozens of researchers produced a 680-page book detailing what they learned about Kennewick Man. They concluded that the man weathered several wounds during his lifetime, was about 40 years old when he died — and that his narrow skull most closely resembled those of Pacific Rim populations such as Polynesians or Japan's Ainu people.

They said Kennewick Man appeared to favor a diet of fish and marine mammals, based on a chemical analysis of his bones. This was cited as further evidence that he wasn't a local, but rather a traveler who made his way down the Pacific Coast to the Columbia.

Related: Bones Tell Ancient Tale of Kennewick Man

A different story from the genes

At the same time, other researchers were trying to coax DNA sequences out of 200 milligrams' worth of ground-up hand bone that had been taken from Kennewick Man during an earlier round of scientific tests. The effort was led by a Danish pioneer in the analysis of ancient DNA, Eske Willerslev, director of the Center for GeoGenetics at Copenhagen University.

"The DNA was highly damaged and fragmented, which is very typical for ancient DNA," Willerslev told reporters. Previous attempts to read the genetic code had been unsuccessful, but thanks to advances in technology, Willerslev and his colleagues were able to produce the equivalent of one complete read-through for the genome.

The verdict on Kennewick Man's genetic heritage ran counter to the other scientists' view. The geneticists ruled out a close association with the Ainu, Polynesians or other far-off populations. "It's very clear that the genome sequence shows he is most closely related to contemporary Native Americans," Willerslev said.

Whatever differences there were between Kennewick Man and present-day tribes could be explained by only a few hundred years' worth of population divergence, or the fact that there's been genetic mixing between the tribes and other populations over the past 8,500 years, said Rasmus Nielsen, an evolutionary biologist at Berkeley who's one of the Nature paper's co-authors.

But what about that skull? The skull experts on Willerslev's team said the shape of Kennewick Man's noggin was within the spectrum of size variations for Native Americans. "For a single individual in a certain time in a certain spot, you cannot with significance associate that individual with a specific population," Willerslev said.

Related: Infant's Genome Fills in Native American Ancestry

Image: DNA lab
Lab workers analyze DNA at the Center for GeoGenetics in Denmark. Mikal Schlosser

The story's next chapter

Willerslev declined to say whether Kennewick Man's bones should be handed over to Native Americans based on the new findings. "This is a question for the Corps of Engineers as well as tribes, and not for the scientists," he said.

Five Native American groups — including the Colville as well as the Yakama, Umatilla, Nez Perce and Wanapum tribes — have put in claims for the remains. Boyd said the tribes have been working well together on the issues surrounding the Ancient One, but he added that "there definitely are more meetings ahead."

Tribal leaders gathered with scientists and journalists at the Burke Museum on Thursday for a news briefing about the DNA results. "Today science has established a concrete proof, a concrete truth. This truth cannot be disputed," said Armand Minthorn, a trustee of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation.

Willerslev cautioned that the DNA results cannot determine which tribe is most closely related to Ancient One, in part because so few samples from Native Americans have been tested. The Colville provided samples for the research project, but other tribes did not.

"I don't believe we have to subject ourselves to DNA testing to prove who we are and how long we've been here," said Ruth Jim, a member of the Yakama Nation's tribal council. Jim joined with leaders of the four other tribes in calling on the Army Corps of Engineers to hand over the Ancient One's bones quickly.

Image: Ruth Jim
Ruth Jim, a member of the Yakama Nation's tribal council, calls for the handover of the 8,500-year-old bones of Kennewick Man during a briefing at the Burke Museum in Seattle. "I plead with the scientists to step back and allow the Kennewick Man to be reburied," she said. Alan Boyle / NBC News

Kem said it's too early for the corps to decide what the next steps will be. "We don't even have the results," he told reporters. However, Kem said he plans to draw up an action plan and a timeline within the next few weeks. The plan would include an evaluation of all the scientific evidence about Kennewick Man, and whether there's enough of an association with the tribes to justify a handover.

Related: See the Surprising Face of a First American

It's not yet clear whether such a handover might be contested by the original group of plaintiffs in the long-ago federal lawsuit. One of those plaintiffs, Douglas Owsley of the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History, told The Guardian that Kennewick Man still didn't meet the legal definition of a Native American. Any effort that runs counter to the previous court rulings "would never stand up," Owsley said.

Kem, meanwhile, noted that those past rulings cost the corps in the neighborhood of $2.7 million in legal fees and other expenses. For that reason, he wants to be sure the process he sets up for reconsidering Kennewick Man's fate will indeed stand up in court. "I don't want to rush to failure, because we'll just end up right back paying a bunch of lawyer fees and using taxpayer money unnecessarily," he said.

'It's not going to be another 19-year process.'

James Chatters, a Seattle-based anthropologist who has studied Kennewick Man since the bones were found but was not a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said the latest DNA findings shouldn't be seen as the end of the debate. "In science, you need a second opinion, especially when it's something as important as this," he told NBC News.

The corps should follow the mandate it was given by the federal court rulings, said Cleone Hawkinson of Friends of the Past, a nonprofit group that supports the plaintiff's point of view. "A rush to rebury based on such preliminary results would be a serious loss," she told NBC News in an email. "Ancient DNA techniques are improving, indeed flourishing, but in the U.S. comparative data today are sparse. We have more work to do to answer the questions."

But Kem doesn't think the process he has in mind will take all that much longer. He expects to have it "well thought through next year."

"It's not going to be another 19-year process," Kem told NBC News. "You can quote me on that if you want."

In addition to Willerslev and Nielsen, the authors of "The Ancestry and Affiliations of Kennewick Man" include Morten Rasmussen, Martin Sikora, Anders Albrechtsen, Thorfinn Sand Korneliussen, J. Vıctor Moreno-Mayar, G. David Poznik, Christoph P. E. Zollikofer, Marcia S. Ponce de Leon, Morten E. Allentoft, Ida Moltke, Hakon Jonsson, Cristina Valdiosera, Ripan S. Malhi, Ludovic Orlando, Carlos D. Bustamante, Thomas W. Stafford Jr. and David J. Meltzer.

The study of Kennewick Man is one of the subjects covered in the first episode of "First Peoples," a PBS documentary series that premieres on June 24. Check local TV listings.