Year in review: Native Americans are Kennewick kin

DNA analysis shows close ties to present-day groups

Kennewick Man skull

NATIVE RELATIVE  This year, scientists analyzed the genetics of Kennewick Man, nearly two decades after the skeleton's discovery. The skull is similar to that of Polynesians, but DNA suggests a link to Native Americans.

Chip Clark/Smithsonian Institution

Kennewick Man, whose 8,500-year-old skeleton sparked a controversy when it was found in Washington state, was a relative of present-day Native Americans, researchers reported this year. Since the discovery of the skeleton in 1996, Native American tribes have claimed Kennewick Man as their own and requested the bones be handed over for a ceremonial burial. Some scientists argued, though, based on the shape of his skull, that he was more closely related to native Polynesians or a native Japanese group called the Ainu.

Morten Rasmussen of the University of Copenhagen and colleagues wrested DNA from Kennewick Man’s skeleton and analyzed it for the first time. They found that Kennewick Man is more closely related to Native Americans in the northern United States than to any other living population (SN: 7/25/15, p. 6). Two donors who provided modern DNA for comparison came from a tribe that, with four other tribes, lost a 2004 lawsuit to bury Kennewick Man as one of their ancestors.

More work is needed to determine which of today’s Native American tribes, if any, has the closest genetic ties to the ancient American.

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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