New genetic evidence has emerged proving that Kennewick Man, an 8,500-year-old skeleton found near the Columbia River Washington state almost 20 years ago, is related to members of a Northwest Native American tribe.
The new DNA evidence from a Danish team helps resolve a long-running scientific mystery, but also rekindles an argument over who should have custody of the remains.
Wherever he comes from, experts say Kennewick Man or the Ancient One is one of the oldest and perhaps the most important human skeleton ever found in North America.
Controversy over the Kennewick Man
The initial assessments from physical anthropologists were that Kennewick Man’s facial features and cranium did not appear to be Native American. Some researchers suggested he might have originated from Asia or Polynesia.
Native American groups, however, argued that he was obviously their ancestor and should have a proper burial. The federal government eventually agreed and the skeleton was secured until legal proceedings could be completed.
A coalition of researchers sued to have Kennewick Man released, and they won. The skeleton has been carefully studied since then, and is stored in a museum in Washington.
The most-accepted scientific hypothesis to date was that Kennewick Man was a relative of the Ainu, a group in Japan, or Polynesians. This conclusion was drawn based on analysis of the skeleton and facial features.
The new DNA evidence from the Danish group suggests that Kennewick Man is genetically related to members of local tribes.
“We can see very clearly that Kennewick Man is more closely related to present day Native Americans than he is to anybody else,” explains Eske Willerslev from the University of Copenhagen. Willerslev is an expert in the study of ancient DNA and was the leader of the research project.
The new study was published on Thursday in the academic journal Nature.
Still room for doubt
The new DNA data shows that Kennewick Man shares a close genetic relationship with members of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. These tribes originate from the Pacific Northwest, and are one of the Native American groups that initially fought custody of the remians.
Not all scientists are convinced by the new study. Moreover, Willerslev admits that there is minimal reliable genetic information from modern Native Americans to make comparisons. It’s quite possible, for example, there are other tribes more closely related to Kennewick Man. Or Native Americans are actually descendants of some relative of Kennewick Man who was living in the Pacific Northwest 10,000 to 15,000 years ago.
“We probably will never be able to say who is, in fact, the closest living relative of Kennewick Man,” Willerslev notes.