Kennewick Man’s DNA links him to present-day Native Americans

Genetic data refute studies suggesting the ancient Pacific Northwesterner was Polynesian

Kennewick Man’s skeleton

NATIVE GUY  DNA from 8,500-year-old Kennewick Man’s skeleton indicates that he shared ancestry with modern Native Americans and perhaps was closely related to Northwest tribes that want to rebury his bones.


Native Americans can claim Kennewick Man as one of their own, an analysis of DNA from one of the ancient individual’s bones finds. But the investigation’s suggestion that Kennewick Man had especially close genetic ties to northern Native American tribes that want to rebury his bones is controversial. 

DNA extracted from a man’s 8,500-year-old skeleton, which was found in Washington State in 1996, is more closely related to that of modern Native Americans than of populations elsewhere in the world. A team led by paleogeneticist Morten Rasmussen of the University of Copenhagen reports the findings online June 18 in Nature.

Kennewick Man displays the greatest genetic similarity to northern Native Americans, especially the Colville, Ojibwa and Algonquin, the scientists say.

In 2004, a federal judge denied a request by five Northwest tribes, including the Colville, to bury Kennewick Man as one of their ancestors. Scientific study of the bones commenced at that point.

Part of the controversy surrounding Kennewick Man’s possible connection to modern Native Americans concerns previous reports that his skull looks much like those of native Polynesians and a native Japanese group called the Ainu. Anthropologists on Rasmussen’s team found the same pattern but argue that, due to large individual differences in skeletal traits within a single population, no conclusions can be drawn about Kennewick Man’s heritage from one skull.

Comparisons of ancient and modern DNA stand a better chance of unraveling Kennewick Man’s place in New World human evolution, the researchers say. Of the five tribes participating in the lawsuit, only two members of the Colville provided DNA to Rasmussen’s group for comparison with Kennewick Man.

“I expect that the other four tribes are also closely related to Kennewick Man,” says study coauthor Eske Willerslev, also a University of Copenhagen paleogeneticist. There’s no way to tell at this point which present-day Native American group has the closest genetic ties to the ancient American, Willerslev says.

James Chatters, the first scientist to ever study Kennewick Man’s remains, says it’s too early to conclude that the ancient man has particularly close links to any Native American tribe, including the Colville. Rasmussen’s team can say with confidence only that Kennewick Man shared a common genetic heritage in Asia with all modern Native Americans, says Chatters, an archaeologist at Applied Paleoscience, a private consulting firm in Bothell, Wash.

Consistent with Kennewick Man’s broader DNA connection to Native Americans, a Chatters-led study found a genetic connection between a girl whose 12,000- to 13,000-year-old remains were found off Mexico’s coast and Native Americans today (SN: 6/14/14, p. 6).

A baby buried in Montana roughly 12,600 years ago also was a genetic ancestor of present-day Native Americans with DNA roots in Northeast Asia (SN: 3/22/14, p. 6). That child shows closer genetic ties to Central and South American tribes than Kennewick Man does, Rasmussen’s group found.

Little is known about the genetics of people from most of the 566 Native American tribes registered in the United States as of May 2013, Chatters says. The Colville people consist of 12 confederated bands in Washington State, some living on the coast and others based inland, he adds. DNA from two Colville individuals doesn’t provide nearly enough evidence to characterize Kennewick Man’s genetic relationship to the entire Colville population today, Chatters contends.

“DNA from many more modern Native American groups needs to be sampled before any broad conclusions can be drawn from the genes of one ancient skeleton,” Chatters says.

Rasmussen’s team conducted statistical comparisons of Kennewick Man’s recovered DNA with genetic material from the ancient Montana infant and with DNA samples from 37 present-day native groups in Greenland and the Americas. DNA was available for 10 Native American populations in North America.

Genetic similarities between the Colville people and Kennewick Man suggest that the ancient man’s population and the Colville split from a single ancestral group around 9,200 years ago, the scientists say.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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