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On the Scene

Genome of a chief

Ancient DNA experts say they are analyzing a lock of Sitting Bull's hair

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LARAMIE, Wyo. – Craig Venter and James Watson have done it, as has an African bushman named !Gubi and a handful of others. Now legendary Sioux chief Sitting Bull may be joining the small but growing number of people who have had their DNA sequenced.

Earlier this year, a research team led by Eske Willerslev, an ancient DNA expert at the University of Copenhagen, reported sequencing the complete genome of a native Greenlander who lived 4,000 years ago. It was the first full human genome published based on ancient DNA.

On August 13, team member Cristina Valdiosera described some of the lab’s other work in Laramie, Wyo., at a meeting of the American Quaternary Association. In recent months she has focused on an ambitious project to gather ancient DNA from mummies, preserved hair and other specimens across South America – all from pre-Columbian times, all meant to build up a picture of how populations grew and evolved. Such studies can shed light on the complex story of how the first Americans migrated across a land bridge between what is now Russia and Alaska at the end of the last ice age, developing over millennia into the diverse populations seen today.

At the end of her talk Valdiosera flashed a slide of Sitting Bull, the revered chief who reportedly foresaw the defeat of George Custer at Little Bighorn in 1876, then years later was shot in South Dakota by police as tensions grew over the Ghost Dance religious ceremony. Sitting Bull’s remains were reportedly moved to South Dakota in 1953, although it’s unclear exactly where his body lies.

Valdiosera said that the researchers have the approval of Sitting Bull’s descendents to perform DNA tests on a sample of his hair, and that the team is trying to extract a full genome. If so, his would become the first ancient, non-frozen, Native American genome sequenced.

After the talk Valdiosera declined to provide more details, referring me to Willerslev, her boss. But Willerslev is out of pocket at the moment, in Greenland, where he’s looking for more ancient DNA to sequence.

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