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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

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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.
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Divers in Michigan Discover 93-Year-Old Shipwreck at the Bottom of Lake Huron
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On the evening of September 21, 1924, the cargo steamship SS Clifton met its end in Lake Huron while carrying a 2200-ton load of crushed stone from Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin to Detroit. The vessel was likely caused to sink by a gale, and the disaster resulted in the deaths of 25 crew members. Bits of wreckage were later found, but the freighter’s resting place ultimately remained a mystery. Now, more than 90 years later, the Associated Press reports that the SS Clifton’s location at the bottom of the Great Lake has been confirmed.

Scuba diver David Trotter—who’s reportedly located more than 90 Great Lakes shipwrecks—discovered the SS Clifton in September 2016, following a 30-year search. He waited to publicly share the news until his company, Undersea Research Associates, was able to investigate and document the steamship's remains last summer.

Trotter had spent decades searching for the SS Clifton, but finding it was ultimately a matter of serendipity, he says. In June 2016, Trotter and his team were surveying two wrecks—the schooners Venus and Minnedosa, which sank in 1887 and 1905, respectively—when they spotted yet another submerged ship. They logged its coordinates, but only managed to get a closer look several months later, in September 2016, during a quick dive trip.

GoPro footage confirmed that the ship in question was a whaleback steamer, a unique type of 19th century cargo steamship with low, rounded hulls, decks, and deckhouses, which were designed to cut down on water and wind resistance. “The Clifton was the only whaleback ship left in Lake Huron that hadn’t already been found,” Trotter said, according to WZZM-TV. “There was no question we had found the Clifton.”

The USS Clifton sits on its side, around 100 miles south of where some shipwreck hunters initially believed it had sunk. Its bow is shattered, likely from the collision with the lake’s bottom, while the stern, inside paneling, and architecture remain well-preserved. Divers also spotted an unopened suitcase, and signage inside the ship.

So far, there isn't any clear mechanical evidence as to why the USS Clifton sank, but Trotter's team did find “that the self-unloading mechanism was still in position,” he says. This was “an interesting discovery because we now realize that the unloading mechanism didn’t break free, causing the Clifton to have instability, resulting in her sinking.”

Trotter hopes to explore the USS Clifton’s engine room and cabins, and to bring the suitcase ashore to examine its contents. Until then, he can remain satisfied that he’s finally solved a mystery that had eluded him for much of his career.

[h/t Associated Press]

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Kennewick Man's genome was sequenced at the GeoGenetics lab at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen.
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6 Pioneering Facts About Mary Leakey

Fossil bones and the earliest footprints of our human ancestors are just a few of Mary Leakey’s groundbreaking discoveries. Get to know the legendary paleoanthropologist, and learn how her serendipitous finds forever altered scientists’ understanding of human origins.

1. MARY LEAKEY WAS A BORN EXPLORER.

Mary Leakey (1913-1996), née Mary Nicol, was destined to be an explorer: Her father, Erskine Nicol, was a landscape painter, and the family traveled extensively through France, Italy, and Switzerland. While staying in a commune in southern France, 12-year-old Mary became interested in archaeology after meeting Elie Peyrony, a French prehistorian excavating a cave. Mary dug through his tiny finds—which included fine points, scrapers, and flint blades—and sorted them into an amateur classification system.

2. FOSSIL HUNTING WAS IN HER BLOOD ...

Leakey’s parents were artists, but hunting for fossils was part of her heritage: Her maternal great-great-grandfather was John Frere, an 18th-century English government official and antiquarian who’s credited with first recognizing Stone Age flint objects as early weapons and tools.

3. ... BUT SHE WASN'T A GREAT STUDENT.

Leakey was intelligent, but she also had a rebellious streak. As a teen, she was expelled from several Roman Catholic convent schools—once for intentionally creating an explosion in a chemistry lab. Figuring she wasn’t cut out for a classroom, Leakey never finished high school, and decided to pursue independent studies in art, geology, and archaeology at the University of London instead. (“I had never passed a single school exam, and clearly never would,” the scientist later wrote in her 1986 autobiography Disclosing the Past.)

4. LEAKEY WAS AN ARTIST WHEN SHE MET HER FUTURE HUSBAND AND RESEARCH PARTNER, LOUIS LEAKEY.

Mary Leakey—who inherited her father’s artistic skills— ended up working as an illustrator for archaeological digs. An archaeologist introduced her to Cambridge University paleontologist Louis Leakey, who needed an illustrator for his book Adam’s Ancestors (1934). The two became lovers, but their union resulted in scandal, as Leakey was still married at the time. The couple married in 1936, after Leakey divorced his first wife.

5. MARY LEAKEY'S FIRST BIG DISCOVERY WAS PROCONSUL AFRICANUS.

Mary Leakey's first major discovery came in 1948 when she found a fossil skull fragment of Proconsul africanus, an ancestor of apes and humans, which later diverged into two separate species. The fossil was thought to be more than 18 million years old.

6. ANOTHER ONE OF MARY LEAKEY'S FAMOUS FINDS CAME COURTESY OF ELEPHANT POOP.

In 1978, Leakey was on an expedition in Laetoli, in Tanzania, when members of her camp engaged in a spirited elephant dung fight. A scientist fell down, and he noticed strange indentations on the ground that had been recently exposed by erosion. They turned out to be tracks made around 3.7 million years prior, from animals that had walked over damp volcanic ash. Examining these prints took several years, but the team's efforts paid off when Leakey noted that one of the prints seemed to be made by a hominin. This discovery showed that early humans began walking upright long before scientists thought they had.

Additional source: Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind's Beginnings, Virginia Morell

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