DNA links Kennewick Man to Native Americans

By Julia Hill, BioNews 807

New DNA evidence has reignited a longstanding debate over the ownership of a 9000-year-old skeleton, known as Kennewick Man.

After its chance discovery in 1996, Kennewick Man was claimed as an ancestor by local groups of Native Americans, who wanted to rebury the remains. However, they were blocked from doing so by a group of scientists who questioned their assertion and won the legal right to study the skeleton.

Genetic analysis has now shown the skeleton to be more closely related to Native Americans than to any other group.

‘The trail from past to present is often poorly marked in the archaeological record,’ commented co-author David Meltzer from the University of Dallas. ‘With the recovery and careful analysis of ancient DNA, we can better follow that trail: in Kennewick’s case, it leads unerringly to Native Americans.’

During the study, published in Nature, scientists extracted fragments of DNA from 200 milligrams of a hand bone and patched them together to construct a whole genome. They then sequenced this genome and compared it with samples from across the world.

Although the DNA within the bone was highly degraded and mixed with DNA from soil bacteria and other sources, the scientists are confident that the results are correct: the DNA from the skeleton is closer to that from the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Federation than to any of the other samples they compared it with.

The results were supported by matches in the autosomal DNA, mitochondrial DNA, and the Y chromosome.

Kennewick man was originally found in the Columbia River, near Kennewick, Washington. Over 350 bones and bone fragments were found, and the skeleton is one of the most complete for its age.

Anthropologists originally determined that the skeleton had ‘Caucasoid’ features and was a historic-period Euro-American. However, radiocarbon dating placed the skeleton of Kennewick Man at 8500-9000 years old, making him pre-Columbian.

This led to a legal battle between scientists who wished to study the remains and local Native American tribes who believed the skeleton – whom they call the Ancient One – to be an ancestor.

Under the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), five tribes requested the bones be returned to them for burial. However, anthropologists argued that the skeleton could provide a unique insight into America’s early inhabitants, and in 2004 it was ruled that scientists had the right to study the remains because the origin of the skeleton could not be proved.

Jim Boyd of the Colville Tribe told the BBC that he is very pleased with the outcome of the genetic analysis: ‘We’ve maintained the belief at the Colville Community tribes that the Ancient One is a relative of ours. This is proven now and we are very happy about this.’

It is not yet known what impact these findings will have on the fate of the remains, but the Colville tribe and others are continuing their legal case and hope that the study results will strengthen their case.

‘We need the Ancient One to be respected and returned to the ground,’ Boyd said.

Tribes say law requiring return of remains, relics, hasn’t met promise

By Kristen Hwang, Cronkite News

WASHINGTON – Manley Begay Jr. stood surrounded by boxes “stacked to the ceiling” that were filled with the remains of more than 1,000 Native Americans, when one label caught his eye.

Canyon Del Muerte.

It was where Begay’s family took their livestock to winter on the Navajo Nation. But here, at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University more than two decades ago, it was the label on a box of human remains.

“It’s as though you’re experiencing the death of a loved one right before your eyes again and again and again,” said Begay, now a professor at Northern Arizona University.

Back then, he was a graduate student at Harvard and part of the museum’s repatriation committee, formed in response to a new law – the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

He and others were optimistic that the law would help tribes regain the sacred items and estimated 180,000 human remains that had been taken from them years before by museums and collectors across the country in what has been called the “Native American Holocaust.”

But 25 years later, more than 70 percent of Native American remains are still in control of museums and federal agencies, according to the 2014 report by the agency overseeing the repatriation program.

“When NAGPRA was enacted, it was really an attempt to right some wrongs,” Begay said. “However only some museums and only a few individuals have really adhered to the intent – the legal intent – of the law and also the spirit of the law.”

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, for example, has refused since 2004 to return six “sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony” to the Western Apache tribes in Arizona.

And the American Museum of Natural History in New York has agreed to give tribes 77 items, but without the legal classification of “sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony” that would confer ownership to the tribes – the items would essentially be on loan from the museum.

Critics say both museums have ignored recommendations by NAGPRA and by Smithsonian review committees to return the items.

The American Museum of Natural History did not respond to requests for comment. But the Smithsonian defended its compliance with the act, with a spokesman saying officials at the Washington museum are “extremely proud of our repatriation program and feel it has done much good through the Native community.”

In a statement to Cronkite News, the Smithsonian noted that its National Museum of Natural History had returned 200,000 different objects and the skeletal remains of about 6,000 individuals to more than 100 tribes. That does not include repatriation by the Smithsonian?s National Museum of the American Indian, which operates its own program.

The Smithsonian statement said the six items referenced by the Apache were among nine, three of which – cradles from infant grave sites – have been offered for repatriation. But the other items – a shirt, a medicine stick, two medicine hats, a war cap and a wooden charm – have not been shown to have come from the Western Apaches or that they rise to the level of sacred object, the statement said.

“The Smithsonian is willing to reconsider its determination with respect to the six disputed items if the Working Group can provide new or additional evidence to support its claims,” the statement said. “As of this date, the Working Group has not done so.”

Tribal members chafe at the fact that they have the burden of proof and that museums and federal institutions are given final

authority to decide whether to return items. They say institutions have dragged their feet for years, but the National NAGPRA office has little power to force compliance.

The road ends there for the tribes. They have no power under the law to force the museums to comply.

“It’s a standoff at this point,” said Vincent Randall, cultural preservation director with the Yavapai-Apache Nation in Arizona. “We have found that the review board has no power. They have no teeth.”

It wasn’t supposed to be that way.

When the law passed in 1990, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, said it “is not about the validity of museums or the value of scientific inquiry. Rather, it is about human rights.”

The law was intended to foster good faith between the scientific community and tribes by recognizing that the tens of thousands of Native American human remains should be treated with dignity and returned to their descendants.

While consultation and collaboration between museums and tribes was supposed to be at the heart of NAGPRA, tribes have found in many instances that it is hard to overcome the prejudices of old institutions.

“It’s the world of academia meeting the world of Native thought and understanding about life, and often that can clash,” Begay said.

Randall has seen that clash with academics firsthand.

“They say, ‘Where did you get that information?’” he said. “I tell them: All of you sitting up there went to school and you have a Ph.D. behind your name. Well, these guys right here sitting in front of you are well beyond your Ph.D. because they lived it and they lived it all their life and they are experts. You are dishonoring our elders.”

Begay said he has seen a shift in viewpoints in the archaeology and anthropology communities, but it has been a “slow, snail-paced” movement.

But still, the museums hold all the cards, said James Riding In, an associate professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University.

“What NAGPRA did was it gave the museums and federal agencies a great deal of power over the determination of cultural affiliation,” Riding In said. “So they could have said, even if Indians did the consultation process and said, ‘These remains are ours or these cultural items are ours,’ the museums could use their own determination of what was returnable under the law.”

Critics say problems with enforcement of the program are compounded by the fact that NAGPRA is part of the National Park Service. It has underfunded NAGPRA, they say, and it has its own conflicts – the Park Service has a collection of human remains and cultural items that qualify for repatriation.

Grant money available to tribes and museums from NAGPRA to help with consultation and repatriation has fallen from a high of nearly $2.5 million in 1998 to just over $1.6 million in 2015. In fiscal 2011 and 2012, the National Park Service took $581,000 from NAGPRA grant money and moved it to support administrative costs, according to agency budget documents.

But the National NAGPRA office said all federal agencies have had to tighten their belts.

“Any federal budget changes affect all agencies. Sequestration affected everyone,” said National NAGPRA program officer Melanie O’Brien. “I don’t see NAGPRA holding the burden of the budget any more than any other federal agency.”

Sequestration is not the only problem the National NAGPRA office faces. It lost its civil penalty investigator in 2010, and while O’Brien said a new one was hired six months ago, there are 63 backlogged cases against museums for failure to comply with the law.

The office can prescribe civil penalties for museums, but advocates say those penalties – $42,679.34 paid by nine such facilities since 1996 – are “pennies” to large institutions.

“The only avenue they say we have is to bring a lawsuit,” Randall said of the Apaches’ struggle to get items returned. “But to be honest, we don’t have the money to fight a big institution that has money.”

There is no avenue under the law to encourage federal agencies to comply. The agencies have returned less than half of the human remains they held when the law was passed.

For museums, the exact number is uncertain because reporting the information to the national office is voluntary, but the latest report from National NAGPRA estimates museums have more than 140,000 human remains left to be repatriated.

“While much is being made of foreign auctions and the like, and the efforts of Jews to get back artwork stolen during the Holocaust, museums in this country are still falling short in returning items taken in the Native American Holocaust – by those very same museums – even when faced with completely legitimate claims,” said Seth Pilsk, a tribal official for the Western Apaches.

For tribal nations the “human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony” that NAGPRA dictates be returned are integral to their religious and cultural identities.

“I didn’t know those individuals but they’re still my people, they’re who we came from,” Riding In said. “And I don’t put a timeline on that feeling.

“It can go back deep in time that these are our ancestors and they deserve full human rights and no one asked them if they consented to be dug up and put on display and studied,” he said.

Many nations believe that social ills like alcoholism and domestic violence are caused by the unrest of their unburied ancestors, and because objects the tribe considers holy have been separated from the people.

“Those who don’t fulfill the spirit of the law, if that doesn’t happen, then these traumas continue to happen,” Begay said.

INTERVIEW: Native People And The Trolls Under The Bridge

MintPress talks to a recent PhD recipient whose work focuses on how “rationalizations perpetuate the notion that American Indians are inherently different from non-natives.”




By Christine Graef, Mint Press News


AKWESASNE, New York — In the two decades since the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) became law, requiring federal agencies and institutions to return human remains and culturally identifiable items, about 38,671 individuals, 998,731 funerary objects, 144,163 unassociated funerary objects, 4,303 sacred objects, 948 objects of cultural patrimony and 822 sacred and patrimonial objects have been returned to their people, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior.

“In terms of NAGPRA since 1990, changes are apparent, for sure, though I have found that this usually involves just subtle changes in language and not real, meaningful change,” said Brian Broadrose, a Seneca descendant who recently finished his doctoral studies at Binghamton University, where he focused on the relationship between anthropologists and Native Americans. “Last I checked, not a single institution with significant quantities of Native bodies and artifacts is in full compliance with the law.”

Despite being flouted as human rights legislation, Broadrose told MintPress that NAGPRA is actually a compromise.

Broadrose spent five years gathering more than 840 pages of data for his dissertation, concluding that the use of language in NAGPRA is deliberate, “in the sense that these categories were not created by Indians, but by those who possess our materials and have a vested interest in not returning it.”

“In its original wording it was strongly resisted by many of the most powerful anthro-organizations out there, including the Society for American Archaeology,” Broadrose said. ”The SAA would only support watered down legislation, whereby they would have exclusive control over the most relevant definitions — for example, a difference between funerary versus unassociated, culturally affiliated or not — and this was very definitely a theme echoed by the troll faction of ‘Iroquoianist’ scholars.”

Funerary objects are considered unassociated when found with human remains if they are not in the possession of a museum or federal agency.

He said the compromised legislation allowed the SAA to switch their scales of analyses, allowing them to make assertions like, “These objects and bodies are not associated or affiliated with the Iroquois, instead of these objects and bodies areassociated or affiliated with American Indians, in general.”

“I regularly found unmarked boxes of bones in various labs at state and private schools here in upstate New York,” he said.

Despite years of efforts to have the region’s ancestors repatriated, there are still some 800 Native American bodies held in New York museums.

“There is a very inadequate old law allowing for the collection of human remains by the State Education Department,” said Peter Jemison, State Historic Site Manager of Ganondagen in New York and Chairman of the Haudenosaunee Standing Committee on the Burial Rules and Regulations.

Jemison said that after years of trying, they found that building consensus across party lines was impossible. Lobbyists representing developers and even farmers prevented legislation from going beyond the committee phase.

“The state is still in possession of human remains; however, we are closer to repatriation,” Jemison said. “The same can be said of sacred objects. The ball is in our court.”

In his 2014 PhD dissertation, “The Haudenosaunee and the Trolls Under the Bridge: Digging Into the Culture of ‘Iroquoianist Studies,’” Broadrose also examined an example of a state rejecting Native educational curriculum that includes their history.

This relationship, he said, is “fraught with hostility and inequality” because of an unfortunate past. Scholars disregarding the significance of American Indian artifacts, unethical and immoral practices continues into the 21st century because “rationalizations perpetuate the notion that American Indians are inherently different from non-natives,” he said.



Thegroup of ‘Iroquoianist’ scholars consistently minimize the role of the Haudenosaunee in their own Euroamerican culture while overstating the influence of civilized whites upon the Haudenosaunee,” Broadrose wrote in his thesis, which will be published in its entirety by the university this fall.

Dubbed “the trolls,” a term referring to beings from European mythology lurking under bridges, the bridge being what could connect Native people and their history with Euro-Americans and their history, they persistently denied voice to the “Other,” he wrote.

Hiding as if under a bridge, ready to attack those who attempt to cross and meet in the middle, “Many don’t want anything to do with Indians as living breathing people who throw a wrench into the salvage archaeology they continue to practice, which is of course based upon the faulty ‘disappearing Indian paradigm.’”

In the late 1980s the idea for a curriculum supplement was suggested by Donald H. Bragaw, chief of the Bureau of Social Studies Education, at a meeting between New York’s Natives and the State Education Department (SED).

In 1987, a meeting convened between representatives of the SED and the Haudenosaunee Council, including Jake Swamp, Leon Shenandoah, Bernard Parker, Leo Henry, Doug-George Kanentiio, John Kahionhes Fadden, and others. All were in agreement that there were areas that needed work and they were ready to set to the job of supplementing curriculum.

On March 10, 1988 Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii wrote to Fadden, as quoted in Broadrose’s thesis, “The educational project that you and others are undertaking with the New York State Education Department is important to the education of all children, Indian and non-Indian alike”

In what may easily be one of the most positive cooperative efforts between the state and the Haudenosaunee, a 400-page guide for schools, “Haudenosaunee: Past, Present, and Future: a Social Studies Resource Guide,”was drafted.

“The Haudenosaunee authors of the ill-fated curriculum guide wrote their history in a powerful, meaningful work that would have educated young non-native populations in the state of New York about what was here before, and what remains vibrant and in existence today,” Broadrose said.

Then, in 1988, the reviews started rolling in. The SED had solicited evaluations from some 30 experts, including anthropologists, historians and school teachers.

All but five gave positive reviews. The others, however, were “abusively negative,” according to Broadrose. The state dismissed the curriculum guide on the basis of these five, who claimed the Haudenosaunee did not align with what scholars had decided about them, despite the scholars never incorporating the input of any Native American into their research.

Examining the critics, he found, “Arguments of ‘they didn’t use our research,’ to ‘Indians can’t be historians,’ to wanting to save the ideas of the culture while the Indians themselves went extinct detailing charges of reverse racism — that the Haudenosaunee are anti-white — to the charge that the guide authors are political activists with political agendas, to the concern that the proper sources — trolls — were not employed in the guide.”

Finding an assumption of the infallibility of the written Westernized word over other forms of historical recollections, Broadrose said the critics were also “serving as expert consultants and witnesses in court cases involving land or the establishment of casinos, that often encompass the wishes of just single nations or of just single corporate groups.”

“Before anthros resume their seemingly unending study of the Other, perhaps they should devote some research time to studying themselves, their own culture and its role in the production and constructions of pasts,” he said.


The trolls

Collectively, the troll faction of Iroquoianist scholars who rejected the curriculum have been cited by other scholars and themselves 9,263 times, invoking their own authority to perpetuate their own litany, according to Broadrose’s research.

He citedClayton W. Dumont Jr., a member of the Klamath Tribe and NAGPRA specialist, who compared it to a scenario of conquered Americans requesting to have the remains of George Washington repatriated to them.

“After all, Washington had different material culture objects buried with him, different clothing, different technology, and overall lived quite differently than today’s Americans,” he said. “American Indians must, therefore, look and act like the anthropological version of their deceased ancestors, denying them the dynamic nature and adaptability of Euro-American cultures, denying them the ability to change.”

The deliberate complexities in NAGPRA are seen in the Kennewick Man, a skeleton found in July 1996 near Kennewick, Washington. The federally recognized Umatilla Tribe, whose ancestral land he was found on, claimed him as an ancestor.

Archeologists, however, said the Kennewick Man’s age made the discovery scientifically valuable and they claimed there was insufficient evidence to connect him to the tribe.

New York state, meanwhile, does not recognize cultural affiliation for any bodies over 500 years old.

“Simple substitution will show the absurdity of this,” said Broadrose. “Based upon New York law, if I found the remains of a famous European, like Shakespeare, here, I would have the right to collect and study his bones and not be compelled to repatriate to Europeans. After all, Shakespeare wore different clothing, spoke a different variant of English, and had different material culture than Europeans today, therefore, he must not be European. That is the gist of the absurdity of cultural affiliation.”

New York also has no protections in place for burials that are not marked by stone monuments or demarcated in the Euro-American cemetery fashion.

“How is it that basic human rights that all other groups are afforded in the U.S., including

control over ancestral remains and graves, can be compromised or negotiated?”  Broadrose asked.


Punk rock inspiration

Broadrose began his dissertation with a question: “What really has changed since the 19th century?”

“The answer is that such differences are in appearance only, not in substance, as the words of the highly decorated, oft-cited troll faction of ‘Iroquoianist’ scholars has made clear,” he said. “The concern is with appearance and not content.”

What NAGPRA has demonstrated is that there is no systematic inventory of any removed human and cultural remains, he said. “Most remain unstudied, unsorted, and hidden away in offices, boxes, bags, or as personal curios in scholar’s offices and homes.”

“With no oversight, it is impossible to know the quantity of material taken from American Indians, though we know colonization and such dispossession went hand in hand, so we are talking about a theft of massive scale,” Broadrose said. “And we are just talking about those federally funded institutions and their lack of compliance in compiling the NAGPRA-mandated inventory. We have absolutely no idea the quantity of material that resides in private hands, collected from private lands, exchanged through private collectors.”

Calling it a dispossession of historic magnitude, he said, “In my opinion, [it] easily exceeds the theft of material wealth from Jews and others defined as inferior by the Nazis.”

His research challenges the prevailing notion from the 1980s that archaeologists were objective in reporting the past without inserting their own biases into interpretations. In the face of this critique, researchers now are required to choose a specific theoretical framework as a lens that allows them to mitigate their findings without the question of their profiting.

Broadrose’s theory chapter is titled “Punk Rock: The Destruction of the Spectacle.”

“I spent a lot of youthful time down in the city, jumping around and living the punk rock lifestyle,” he said. “I found some incredible intellectual heavyweights on street corners and makeshift stages, and in my research, I wanted to make clear: academics and scholars do not have a monopoly on complex thought.”

He found that scholars often have tunnel vision, a “me-first” attitude that contradicts their created discourse.

“The punks that I squatted with back in the early 80s, a mix of cast-offs, runaways, and urban Native Americans, understood the Potlatch paradigm,” he said. “In particular, I justified my deconstruction or critical destruction of troll narratives that disempower Indians by looking beyond the obvious — the fire burns, to the reality — the ground becomes fertile for new growth when the flame finishes its consumption.”

In this analogy, Broadrose is the fire.

“Punk rock is discordant and jarring,” he said. “My discourse is modeled after this, loudly interrupting. When the normative narrative is interrupted, the status quo types get agitated and oft times slip up and expose the sort of back stage talk indicative of power inequalities, and I sure wanted to expose that.”

In effect, Broadrose explained, NAGPRA and the scholars are saying, “Yes, we agree that your ancestral bodies and artifacts were removed without your consent, but even though all pre-1492 bodies and artifacts are by definition Indigenous, we still want to keep a bunch of stuff so we can continue our careers as experts on you and your people, and so we can continue receiving funding to measure, record, and pose your stuff to a paying public. So too we will define for you who you are related to and who you are not related to.”  

“Behind the scenes I may be marginalized, perhaps tenure or research funding will be denied by any of the 9,000-plus scholars who uncritically cited and accepted the work of troll faction members as fact,” he said.

The burden of proof is on the Native Americans to ask, he said, because otherwise they are dependent on the inventories that institutions which receive federal funding are legally required to compile.

“Few museums complied with NAGPRA, opting to foot drag and draw out the process,” he said. “Why have they not been inventoried? I am a proponent of Indians making surprise visits to anthropology departments and museums to see what might be found.  A box of what are clearly human remains in an unmarked box under the lab table of a biological anthropology classroom in a federally funded institute, is, in fact, a violation of NAGPRA and warrants further investigation.”

Ancient genome stirs ethics debate

Sequencing of DNA from Native American ‘Clovis boy’ forces researchers to rethink handling of tribal remains.

By Ewen Callaway, Nature.com

12 February 2014
Source: Robert L. WalkerHumans from the Clovis culture used characteristic stone points (brown) and rod-shaped bone tools.
Source: Robert L. Walker
Humans from the Clovis culture used characteristic stone points (brown) and rod-shaped bone tools.

The remains of a young boy, ceremonially buried some 12,600 years ago in Montana, have revealed the ancestry of one of the earliest populations in the Americas, known as the Clovis culture.

Published in this issue of Nature, the boy’s genome sequence shows that today’s indi­genous groups spanning North and South America are all descended from a single population that trekked across the Bering land bridge from Asia (M. Rasmussen et al. Nature 506, 225–229; 2014). The analysis also points to an early split between the ancestors of the Clovis people and a second group, whose DNA lives on in populations in Canada and Greenland (see page 162).

But the research underscores the ethical minefield of studying ancient Native American remains, and rekindles memories of a bruising legal fight over a different human skeleton in the 1990s.

To avoid such a controversy, Eske Willerslev, a palaeobiologist at the University of Copenhagen who led the latest study, attempted to involve Native American communities. And so he embarked on a tour of Montana’s Indian reservations last year, talking to community members to explain his work and seek their support. “I didn’t want a situation where the first time they heard about this study was when it’s published,” he says.

Construction workers discovered the Clovis burial site on a private ranch near the small town of Wilsall in May 1968 (see ‘Ancient origins’). About 100 stone and bone artefacts, as well as bone fragments from a male child aged under two, were subsequently recovered.
Source: Montana Office of Public Instruction.
Construction workers discovered the Clovis burial site on a private ranch near the small town of Wilsall in May 1968 (see ‘Ancient origins’). About 100 stone and bone artefacts, as well as bone fragments from a male child aged under two, were subsequently recovered.

The boy’s bones were found to date to the end of the Clovis culture, which flourished in the central and western United States between about 13,000 and 12,600 years ago. Carved elk bones found with the boy’s remains were hundreds of years older, suggesting that they were heirlooms. The ranch, owned by Melvyn and Helen Anzick, is the only site yet discovered at which Clovis objects exist alongside human bones. Most of the artefacts now reside in a museum, but researchers returned the human remains to the Anzick family in the late 1990s.

At that time, the Anzicks’ daughter, Sarah, was conducting cancer and genome research at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and thought about sequencing genetic material from the bones. But she was wary of stoking a similar debate to the one surrounding Kennewick Man, a human skeleton found on the banks of the Columbia River in Kennewick, Washington, in July 1996. Its discovery sparked an eight-year legal battle between Native American tribes, who claimed that they were culturally connected to the individual, and researchers, who said that the roughly 9,000-year-old remains pre-dated the tribes.

The US government sided with the tribes, citing the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). The act requires that human remains discovered on federal lands — as Kennewick Man was — are returned to affiliated tribes for reburial. But a court ruled that the law did not apply, largely because of the age of the remains, and ordered that Kennewick Man be stored away from public view in a museum.

Sarah Anzick sought the advice of local tribes over the Clovis boy, but she could not reach a consensus with the tribes on what to do. She gave up on the idea, stored the bones in a safe location and got on with her other research.

In 2009, archaeologist Michael Waters, of Texas A&M University in College Station, contacted Anzick with the idea of sending the remains to Willerslev’s lab. (In early 2010, the lab published one of the first genome sequences of an ancient human, a 4,000-year-old resident of Greenland; see M. Rasmussen et al. Nature 463, 757–762; 2010.) “I said, ‘I will allow you guys to do this, but I want to be involved,’” recalls Anzick, who has published more than a dozen papers in leading journals.

In Copenhagen, she extracted DNA from fragments of the boy’s skull ready for mitochondrial genome sequencing, which offers a snapshot of a person’s maternal ancestry. Back in Montana months later, she received the sequencing data and discovered that the genome’s closest match was to present-day Native Americans. “My heart just stopped,” she says.

Right to remains

After Willerslev’s team confirmed the link by sequencing the boy’s nuclear genome (a more detailed indicator of ancestry), Willerslev sought advice from an agency that handles reburial issues. He was told that, because the remains were found on private land, NAGPRA did not apply and no consultation was needed. Despite this, Willerslev made his own attempt to consult local tribes. This led to a meeting in September at the burial site, with Anzick, Willerslev and their co-author Shane Doyle, who works in Native American studies at Montana State University in Bozeman, and is a member of the Crow tribe.

“That place is very special to me, that’s my ancestral homeland.”

“That place is very special to me, that’s my ancestral homeland,” says Doyle. He told Willerslev and Anzick that they should rebury the child where he was found. “I think you need to put the little boy back where his parents left him,” Doyle recalls telling them.

Doyle and Willerslev then set off on a 1,500-kilometre road trip to meet representatives of four Montana tribes; Doyle later consulted another five. Many of the people they talked to had few problems with the research, Doyle says, but some would have preferred to have been consulted before the study started, and not years after.

Willerslev says that researchers studying early American remains should assume that they are related to contemporary groups, and involve them as early as possible. But it is not always clear whom to contact, he adds, particularly when remains are related to groups spread across the Americas. “We have to engage with Native Americans, but how you deal with that question in practice is not an easy thing,” he says.

Hank Greely, a legal scholar at Stanford University in California who is interested in the legal and ethical issues of human genetics, commends the approach of Willerslev’s team. But he says that there is no single solution to involving Native American communities in such research. “You’re looking to try to talk to the people who might be most invested in, or connected with, particular sets of remains,” he advises.

Dennis O’Rourke, a geneticist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, who studies ancient DNA from populations native to the islands around Alaska, notes that indigenous groups have varying concerns: some want remains reburied, others do not, for instance.

The Montana tribes overwhelmingly wanted the Clovis boy’s bones interred. Plans for a reburial ceremony, possibly at an undisclosed site, are now being hashed out, with the Crow Nation playing a lead role. It is expected to take place in the spring, after the ground thaws.


Nature 506, 142–143 (13 February 2014) doi:10.1038/506142a