U. of I. News: Who Was Kennewick Man? A Minute With U. of I. expert Ripan Malhi

By Newsroom America Feeds at 23 Jun 2015

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Editor’s note: A new genomic study resolves a long scientific debate over the origins of an ancient human skeleton first discovered in Kennewick, Washington, in 1996. U. of I. anthropology professor Ripan Malhi was on the team that conducted the analysis and is an author of a report of the new findings in the journal Nature. He spoke about the history of the 8,340- to 9,200-year-old “Kennewick Man” with News Bureau life sciences editor Diana Yates.

What did scientists first think about Kennewick Man after his discovery in 1996? How did those ideas change over time?

The first scientist to examine the skull of Kennewick Man was an archaeologist. Upon multiple visits to the site where the skull was found, the archeologist was able to collect nearly all of the skeletal remains, resulting in a near-complete skeleton. Upon initial analysis of the skull structure, he racially classified Kennewick Man as a Euro-American with “Caucasoid-like features,” likely from the 19th century. Two analyses dramatically changed this initial assessment of the time that Kennewick Man lived. First, a radiocarbon date on a skeletal sample of this individual placed him at living over 8,000 years ago. Second, a projectile point lodged in his pelvis was a point that was used by Native Americans over 7,000 years ago, according to the archaeological record.

A striking visual, created by the archaeologist, was a facial reconstruction of Kennewick Man that resembled the actor Patrick Stewart. Following the facial reconstruction and the initial assessment of this individual as a European descendant, additional analyses of the skull suggested that the individual was more closely related to Polynesians or the Ainu, indigenous peoples of Japan.

What is the controversy associated with Kennewick Man?

In 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was passed, requiring Native American skeletal remains be repatriated to Native American communities who demonstrate an affiliation with the skeletal remains. The skeletal remains of Kennewick Man were requested under NAGPRA by a consortium of five Native American tribes who live in the same geographic region where the remains were found. The Secretary of the Department of the Interior at the time complied and ordered the repatriation of the skeletal remains.

However, a group of scientists sued the government to block the repatriation so that the remains could be studied. The lawsuit ultimately resulted in a judicial ruling allowing scientific study of the remains. Most Native Americans feel that the remains of their ancestors are sacred, and if disturbed, should be reburied and left in peace, so the lawsuit and judicial ruling upset many indigenous people. The conflict was a reminder of the long history of troubling encounters between Native Americans and scientists, and the judicial ruling was seen as an infringement on Native American sovereignty.

How does the science of genomics help resolve questions like these?

Genomics with ancient, degraded remains has only become possible in the past decade with advances in DNA sequencing technology. Prior to the last decade, ancient DNA researchers were largely restricted to analyzing a single region of the genome. With the latest advances, we now are able to identify and analyze hundreds of thousands to millions of regions of the human genome that provide a large amount of statistical power. In addition, we can focus on genomic regions that are minimally influenced by the environment, allowing for a less biased view when identifying genetic affinities among populations based on historical relationships.

Has Kennewick Man changed scientists’ ideas about the earliest humans in North America?

By generating genomic data on Kennewick Man and comparing his genome to those of living individuals of populations worldwide, we were able to demonstrate statistically that Kennewick Man is more closely related to indigenous peoples of the Americas than to any other population in the world – including the Ainu in Japan and Polynesians in the South Pacific.

Also, the analysis suggests that Kennewick Man is most closely related to indigenous populations in the same geographic region as where the remains were found on the interior of the Pacific Northwest, implying genetic continuity of populations over the past 8,000 years. This suggests that much of the change in archaeological materials over the last 8,000 years reflects the evolution of culture, and not population replacements.

What do you think is the most important part of the study?

The Kennewick Man controversy has significantly shaped my career as a molecular anthropologist. When the controversy began, I was a senior graduate student at the University of California at Davis and conducted the initial DNA analysis on a skeletal sample from this individual. The lawsuit by scientists to block the repatriation of Kennewick Man prompted me to learn about the historic and often discordant interactions between scientific researchers and Native Americans.

As a result, I’ve worked to create respectful and mutually beneficial partnerships with Native American communities on genetics projects. I’ve also developed a program to facilitate awareness of how genomics can be used by Native American community members. I hope the results of this study, which may help with the repatriation of the Kennewick Man skeletal remains, serves as an example of how genomics can be used as a tool to serve Native American interests.

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