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Kennewick Man's genome was sequenced at the GeoGenetics lab at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen.
Kennewick Man's genome was sequenced at the GeoGenetics lab at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen.
Mikal Schlosser

Kennewick Man's DNA Solves Scientific Controversy

Kennewick Man's genome was sequenced at the GeoGenetics lab at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen.
Kennewick Man's genome was sequenced at the GeoGenetics lab at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen.
Mikal Schlosser

As the story in the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation’s Book of Legends goes, the supernatural being Coyote divided the earliest Indians into groups and settled them in different places, giving each group a different name and language. These ancients became the ancestors of all the Indian tribes.

Now the genome sequencing of Kennewick Man, who died in Washington State 8500 years ago with a spear point buried in his hip, has revealed that this ancient North American is indeed an ancestor—or at least a relative—of at least one modern tribe: the Colville, who nearly nine millennia later still live less than 200 miles from where his body was found. According to the findings, either he and the Colville shared a common ancestor, or he is a direct ancestor of theirs.

This genetic analysis, published today in the journal Nature, upends what many scientists have long thought about the controversial Kennewick Man—and could trigger a new legal battle over his remains.

A team of scientists led by Eske Willerslev of the Center for GeoGenetics at the Natural History Museum of Denmark analyzed DNA extracted from 200 mg of metacarpal bone taken from one of Kennewick Man’s hands. They compared it to ancient and modern DNA from both the Americas and eastern Asia, including genetic material from Polynesians and the Ainu of Japan. (Both groups had been proposed as Kennewick Man’s relatives based on cranial morphology, or the shape of his skull.) They also compared it to DNA voluntarily donated by living members of the Colville tribe. In all, the study included genetic samples from 1107 individuals.

It’s “very clear” Kennewick Man's genome shows “he was very closely related to living Native American tribes—most specifically the Colville,” Willerslev said in an press-only teleconference on June 17. He is not closely related to Asian populations.

The researchers say there are two possible explanations for the strong genetic link between Kennewick Man and the modern Colville. They both could be descended from a common ancestor who lived about 9200 years ago, or about 700 years before Kennewick Man hunted seal along the coast of the Pacific Northwest. Alternatively, Kennewick Man could be a direct ancestor of the Colville. The genetic differences between them would have been introduced later, through intermarriage with other tribes. (The Ojibwa and Algonquin are also kin to Kennewick Man.) Willerslev's team say they are leaning towards the second hypothesis.

This discovery is sure to recharge the controversy that has surrounded Kennewick Man’s remains since his skull was discovered on the banks of the Columbia River in July 1996 near Kennewick, WA, by two teenage boys trying to sneak into a boat show. Anthropologist Jim Chatters, who recovered some 300 bone fragments from river mud, first thought the man was of European descent. Later he and other scientists revised that idea, placing his origins across the Pacific based on the shape of his skull.

Five Native American tribes in the region, including the Colville, strongly disagreed with this assessment. They claimed Kennewick Man was an ancestor and asked to have his body repatriated for reburial under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a 1990 law that provides a process for museums and federal agencies to return certain Native American cultural items—human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony—to lineal descendants. The law was meant to redress the widespread raiding of Native American graves by treasure hunters and archaeologists alike that took place across the U.S. for at least a century.

At first the Army Corps of Engineers agreed to hand Kennewick Man over. (His body had been found on federal land administered by the Corps.) Eight scientists sued the federal government, arguing that the scientific evidence pointed to his being from Asia. Any knowledge they could gain from studying his remains would be lost if he were reburied. An eight-year court battle ensued, and in 2004, the scientists won.

Since then, Kennewick Man’s remains have been studied several times. Early attempts at genomic sequencing failed, but the technology has vastly improved since then, making even highly damaged DNA like his recoverable in some circumstances.

Just last year, a 688-page, peer-reviewed book about Kennewick Man edited by the Smithsonian’s Douglas Owsley, one of the plaintiffs in the 1996 lawsuit, was published. Nearly five dozen researchers contributed to the exhaustive tome, which documents the man's life. But it was published before this latest genetic analysis.

Kennewick Man isn’t the only ancient American to have his DNA closely examined. The genes of Naia, a teenage girl who died in Mexico 13,000 years ago, were recently studied; she has Siberian ancestors. And just last year the team behind the Kennewick Man research studied the genome of a child who was ceremonially buried 12,600 years ago in Montana.

There’s a certain irony in the Kennewick Man findings, Willerslev noted. If the scientists had lost the lawsuit, Kennewick Man would have been reburied, and his genetic history would’ve been lost. But because scientists were able to study him, they were able to prove the Colville and other tribes were right in claiming him as one of their own.

It’s worth reiterating that the Colville agreed to contribute their DNA to the study. Such research collaborations suggest the potential for better alliances between archaeologists, anthropologists, and First Nations peoples. “At times there has been a very difficult relationship,” Southern Methodist University anthropologist David Meltzer, a co-author on the paper, said at the press conference. “But American archaeologists have realized they need to do a great deal more … to bring the tribes in on their research, and work collaboratively with them. Mutual respect is really critical.” Perhaps in the future, battles like the one over Kennewick Man can be avoided.

What happens to Kennewick Man’s body next is an open question. For now, his remains are housed in the Burke Museum in Washington.

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Kennewick Man's genome was sequenced at the GeoGenetics lab at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen.
Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on Alor Island, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys and Rachel Wood.
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
These 12,000-Year-Old Fish Hooks Are the Oldest to Ever Be Discovered in a Grave
Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on Alor Island, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys and Rachel Wood.
Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on Alor Island, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys and Rachel Wood.

Prehistoric people who lived on Indonesia’s rugged and remote Alor Island held fishing in such high importance that even the dead were supplied with equipment for snagging a fresh catch. While digging at an archaeological site on the island’s south coast in 2014, scientists found a group of ancient fish hooks, which were buried with an adult human around 12,000 years ago. They’re the oldest fishhooks to ever be discovered in a grave, according to a new report published in the journal Antiquity.

Archaeologists from Australian National University found the partial skeleton while excavating an early rock shelter on Alor’s west coast. The bones—which appeared to belong to a female—were interred with five circular one-piece fish hooks made from sea snail shell. Also found was a perforated bivalve shell, buried beneath the skeleton’s chin. It’s unclear what purpose this artifact served, but experts did note that it had been smoothed and polished, and appeared to have once been dyed red.

Ancient fish hooks discovered in Indonesia by archaeologists from Australian National University
Rotating fish hooks found with the burial

Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on AlorIsland, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys, and Rachel Wood.

Prehistoric fish hooks found in Indonesia by archaeologists from Australian National University.
Circular rotating fish hooks found with the burial

Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on AlorIsland, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys and Rachel Wood.

Researchers used radiocarbon dating to determine the age of charcoal samples found near the burial ground. From this, they determined that the fish hooks and human remains were buried during the Pleistocene Epoch.

Alor Island, the largest island in the volcanic Alor Archipelago, is rocky and lacks a variety of plant life and protein sources. For these reasons, fish was likely an important staple food for ancient residents, and the act of fishing may have also been considered cosmologically important, archaeologists say.

The burial on Alor Island "represents the earliest-known example of a culture for whom fishing was clearly an important activity among both the living and the dead,” the study's authors wrote. Additionally, if the skeleton indeed belonged to a woman (the bones themselves haven't yet been conclusively identified), the hooks might suggest that women in ancient Alor were tasked with hook-and-line fishing, just like those in ancient Australia.

Archaeologists have identified prehistoric fishing hooks at sites around the world. They range from 23,000-year-old hooks, discovered on Japan’s Okinawa Island (the world’s oldest-known fishing implements), to slate hooks from Siberia’s late Mesolithic period (the second-oldest hooks ever found in a gravesite).

The fishing hooks discovered on Alor are circular instead of J-shaped, and resemble other ancient hooks that were once used in countries like Japan, Australia, Mexico, and Chile. Some experts have suggested that these similarities in technology were the result of migration, cultural contact, or even from fish hooks left in migrating tuna. The researchers at Australian National University argue against this theory, hypothesizing that the similarly shaped hooks are instead evidence of “convergent cultural evolution in technology” around the globe.

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Kennewick Man's genome was sequenced at the GeoGenetics lab at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen.
NOVA SCOTIA ARCHIVES AND RECORDS MANAGEMENT, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
A Mystery Shipwreck in Canada Might Be Tied to the 1917 Halifax Explosion
NOVA SCOTIA ARCHIVES AND RECORDS MANAGEMENT, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NOVA SCOTIA ARCHIVES AND RECORDS MANAGEMENT, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On December 6, 1917, a massive explosion boomed across Halifax Harbor, a key Nova Scotia port and a major center for naval ships in North America during World War I. A French cargo ship carrying high explosives, including TNT, collided with a Norwegian steamship, starting a fire that lit up the French vessel. The accident caused what would become the world’s biggest non-nuclear explosion. An entire neighborhood along the harbor was flattened to the ground.

Now, 100 years later, the spotlight is back on another potential victim of the explosion. As CBC News reports, a still-unidentified mystery shipwreck discovered in 2002 may be linked to the event, too.

Researchers don’t know much about the copper-clad, steam-powered schooner found at the bottom of Halifax Harbor during a geological survey of the sea floor. Its remains are half-buried under silt and marine life more than 90 feet below the surface of the water, around 330 feet away from the Halifax shipyard. The experts who have studied the ship since its initial discovery have yet to even identify its name.

There are no records of the ship’s sinking, leading researchers like marine geologist Gordon Fader, who helped find the wreck, to believe it sank during the explosion. Had it gone down after the event, there likely would have been some record of it in newspapers. And the ship was, by all accounts, a rather expensive vessel, possibly one that belonged to either the British navy or a very wealthy owner. It was made with high-quality copper and brass and built for speed, meaning its sinking would have cost someone a hefty chunk of money.

If the ship’s sinking did go unheralded in the aftermath of the massive Halifax explosion, researchers have two potential leads: There were two ships believed to be lost in the explosion that were never found, called the St. Bernard and the Lola R. But the descriptions of those ships don’t quite match up with what’s lying at the bottom of the harbor. A year and a half of research yielded no further information.

Since the last report came out in 2004, the search for its identity has slowed. We may never know the identity of the mystery ship. But as new technology becomes available for studying underwater remains, we can at least hope to glean some new clues.

[h/t CBC News]

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