Molecular biologist honors ancient bones

Remains of Clovis child reinterred after scientist deciphers his genetic secrets

Biologist Sarah Anzick reburies toddler's bones

RETURNING HOME  Biologist Sarah Anzick carries a box containing 12,600-year-old bones to be reburied. The bones belong to a toddler whose DNA she examined.

Shawn Raecke/Livingston Enterprise

Since she was a toddler, molecular biologist Sarah Anzick has had a unique connection to an ancient child.

In 1968, when Anzick was about 2 years old, construction workers in Montana unearthed the 12,600-year-old burial site of a young boy on her parents’ land. The 18-month-old’s bones are the only human remains ever found of ancient Native Americans known as the Clovis people. For 30 years, archaeologists stored the Clovis child’s remains before returning them to the Anzick family for safekeeping in 1998.

As an undergraduate, Anzick worked on the early stages of the Human Genome Project. She later specialized in cancer genetics. “So I had early exposure to the human genome, and could appreciate what we could learn from this book of instructions,” she says. When the Clovis child’s bones were returned, she realized she was in a unique position to examine DNA from the remains and “get a glimpse into the ancient past.”

Before starting the research project, Anzick consulted with Native American tribes about what should be done with the child’s bones. There was no consensus. Many favored reburying the boy unstudied, but, says Anzick, “I felt an obligation to humanity” to unveil the bones’ genetic secrets.  

Molecular biologist Sarah Anzick
Molecular biologist Sarah Anzick deciphered an ancient skeleton’s genetic secrets then chose to honor the child by reburying his remains. Courtesy of S. Anzick
She teamed up with researchers who specialize in studying ancient DNA to reconstruct the child’s entire genome ( SN: 3/22/14, p. 6 ). His DNA revealed that the Clovis people were ancestors of almost all Native Americans alive today.

Once the study was complete, Anzick felt that returning the Clovis child’s remains to where his people had placed him was the right thing to do. She says, “These remains belong at rest, not sitting on a shelf.”

On a rain-soaked Saturday at the end of June, more than 50 people, including scientists, members of the Anzick family and representatives of six Native American tribes, gathered for the nearly two-hour reburial ceremony. Tribe members said prayers, sang songs, played drums and rang bells to honor the ancient child. The bones were placed in the grave and sprinkled with red ocher, a mineral used in ancient funeral rites. Participants at the reburial ceremony filled in the grave with handfuls, then shovelfuls of dirt and covered it with stones. A stick tied with feathers marked the boy’s final resting place.

“At that point, it stopped raining. The clouds opened up and the sun came out. It was an amazing day,” Anzick says. Even though the remains are some of the most important ever discovered, Anzick is glad she respected the tribes’ wishes to rebury the boy. “It just felt really good.… I needed that closure.”

Editor’s note: This article appeared in the September 20, 2014 issue of Science News with the headline, The Biologist and the Bones.

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