Mystery of Kennewick Man Identity Finally Solved - DNA is Native American
Nearly two decades ago, two young men stumbled across a human skull in the Columbian River at Kennewick, Washington. The discovery ended up being one of the biggest archaeological finds of a generation and caused a storm of controversy ever since – his unique characteristics led to all manner of theories regarding his identity, from Native American, to Polynesian, European, and even Ainu from Japan. However, a new DNA analysis has finally solved the mystery.
Following the discovery of the Kennewick skull, archaeologists were able to recover 350 other bones and fragments and dated the remains to be somewhere between 8,000 and 9,500 years old. The remains were determined to be those of a male of late middle age and tall with a slender build. Kennewick Man, as he has become known is one of the oldest and most complete skeletons ever found in North America. However, its significance doesn’t end there.
Kennewick Man was found along the Columbian River in Kennewick (pictured), Washington ( Wikimedia Commons )
During the analysis on Kennewick Man’s skeleton, archaeologist James Chatters was surprised to discover that his anatomical features were quite different from those of modern Native Americans. In particular, his long narrow face, prominent chin, and tall stature did not resemble remains of other Paleo-Indians. In fact, the facial measurements show most similarity to the Ainu of Japan. The Ainu are a Caucasian minority who once possessed the whole of the Japanese Islands. A people closely related to the Ainu also once lived in Polynesia and many light-skinned Polynesians (typically from the ruling class) have facial features similar to Kennewick Man.
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Extensive radiocarbon and DNA testing could have resolved some of these uncertainties long ago. However, attempts to research the remains in depth were curtailed by more than a decade of legal clashes between scientists, the American government and five different Native American tribes who claim Kennewick Man as one of their ancestors.
In 2004, a group of anthropologists sued the United States for the right to conduct tests on the skeletons. It was ruled that a cultural link between any of the Native American tribes and the Kennewick Man was not genetically justified allowing scientific study of the remains to continue. Anthropologist Joseph Powell of the University of New Mexico examined the remains which were analyzed using craniometric data, including those drawn from Asian and North American populations. Powell confirmed what Chatters had initially claimed, that Kennewick Man was not European but most resembled the Ainu and Polynesians. Powell said that dental analysis showed the skull had a 94 per cent chance of being a Sundadont group like the Ainu and Polynesians.
An Ainu man from Japan ( Wikimedia Commons )
In 2005, a 10-day examination of the skeleton led by forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley further confirmed that the skull's features resemble those of the Ainu and suggested that the man's ancestors may have retreated from advancing people from central Asia and travelled by boat over generations along the coast northward and east to North America.
However, a new study published in the journal Nature now draws this conclusion into question. The research involved a DNA analysis conducted on a sample taken from Kennewick Man’s hand bone, which was then compared to the DNA of modern-day Native Americans, Ainu people, and Polynesians.
“The team also reanalyzed the skull and concluded that, because it was just one sample, it was well within the range of variation that could have been found among ancestral Native American populations,” reports Live Science .
The skeletal remains of Kennewick Man. Photo by Chip Clark/Smithsonian Institution
The results showed that the DNA of Kennewick Man was most similar to the modern-day Native American DNA.
"There's no getting around it, Kennewick Man is Native American," co-author David Meltzer, an anthropologist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, told Live Science.
“The new DNA also sheds light on the ancient migrations that peopled the Americas,” reports Live Science. “Last year, Willerslev and his colleagues analyzed the DNA from a 12,600-year-old skeleton, known as the Anzick boy, unearthed in Montana. That DNA revealed the first Americans split into two groups before the Anzick boy lived. One lineage migrated southward to populate Central and South America, while another branch headed north along the northwest coast of North America and into Canada. The new data suggest Kennewick Man's group formed a third offshoot that diverged from the southern lineage, but migrated back north. This lineage includes modern Native Americans such as the Colville and some other Pacific Northwest tribes.”
While Kennewick Man’s identity has finally been revealed, it may still be some time before his remains, and the controversy surrounding his discovery, are finally laid to rest. Native American tribes continue in their battle to have the remains reburied.
Featured image: Sculpted bust of Kennewick Man by StudioEIS based on forensic facial reconstruction by sculptor Amanda Danning. Photo by Brittney Tatchell, Smithsonian Institution