In mid-June 2015, researchers from Denmark and the US announced the much anticipated results of their genetic analyses of the remains of Kennewick Man. Using genetics, scientists have finally resolved the long-standing and much-disputed mystery regarding his origins. This illustrates the pivotal role of scientific and technological advances in understanding population history and genetics, with applications at a scientific and cultural level.
The Kennewick Man: Japanese, Polynesian, European or Native American?
When the skeleton of the Kennewick Man was discovered in 1996 in Washington State, initial cranial analysis suggested that he was a historic-period Euro-American. Subsequent radiocarbon dating estimated that the bones were around 8,000-9,000 years old making him of pre-Columbian origin (the period prior to Christopher Columbus’ voyages to the Americas). This sparked much dispute over the disposition of the skeletal remains.
Native American tribes, inhabiting the region where Kennewick Man was found, believed Kennewick man was a likely ancestor and requested possession of his remains in order to hold a reburial. However, scientists still speculated about the ancestry and affiliations of Kennewick Man, so a more detailed study was commissioned.
Rejecting a hypothesis
The study was published in 2014 and included isotopic, anatomical and morphometric analyses. It concluded that Kennewick Man resembled circumpacific populations, particularly the Japanese Ainu and Polynesians. It also claimed that he had certain “European-like morphological” traits, reinforcing the assertion that he was anatomically distinct from modern Native Americans.
Crucially, the 2014 study did not include DNA analysis. This prompted a new study led by Lundbeck Foundation Professor Eske Willerslev from the Centre for GeoGenetics at University of Copenhagen, and an Associate Editor of GHEG. It used advanced technologies to compare the genome sequence of Kennewick Man to genome wide data of contemporary human populations across the world. The results showed that modern Native Americans are the closest living relatives to Kennewick Man. The study further demonstrated that members of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation that belong to the Claimant Plateau tribes of the Pacific Northwest, who had originally claimed him as their ancestor, were one of the groups showing close affinities to Kennewick Man or at least to the population to which he belonged.
Technological advances were fundamental in understanding the mystery of the Kennewick Man and his origins, exemplifying the interplay between anthropology, population genetics and cultural history. The Kennewick Man may not have been put to his final rest yet – but the mystery surrounding his origins has.
The paper The Ancestry and Affiliation of Kennewick Man was published in the journal Nature on Thursday 18. June 2015.