Thursday, June 18, 2015

Kennewick Man

New genetic evidence suggests that Kennewick Man, an 8,500-year-old skeleton found in Washington state, is related to members of a nearby Native American tribe.

"We can see very clearly that Kennewick Man is more closely related to present day Native Americans than he is to anybody else," says Eske Willerslev from the University of Copenhagen. He specializes in the study of ancient DNA and led the research.

Willerslev's team extracted DNA from one of the skeleton's hand bones. They compared it to DNA from various groups around the world, including Native Americans from North and South America.
They found that Kennewick Man is not related to the Ainu of Japan or Polynesians. But he does share a close genetic affinity with members of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. These tribes stem from the Pacific Northwest, and are among several Native American groups that demanded custody of the skeleton.
These results were published Thursday in the scientific journal Nature.
But if that sounds like "case closed," it isn't.
Willerslev acknowledges that there is very little genetic information about modern Native Americans to make comparisons. There might be other tribes more closely related to Kennewick Man. And it also could be that Native Americans are descendants of some relative of Kennewick Man who lived 10,000 to 15,000 years ago.
"We probably will never be able to say who is, in fact, the closest living relative of Kennewick Man," Willerslev says.
And there's at least one scientist who isn't convinced by the genetic evidence. Physical anthropologist Douglas Owsley of the Smithsonian Institution has edited a 700-page study of the skeleton.
Owsley can read the bones like we might read a book. He looks for ridge lines that indicate which muscles Kennewick Man used the most, and what he was doing with them. First off? He had muscular legs like a soccer player — likely from running, trudging and hunting.
"In his leg structure, he's certainly accustomed to very rapid movement, quick movement, and you can read that in those muscle ridges," says Owsley.
He also likely had killer arms from throwing a tricky kind of spear. Owsley says Kennewick Man was so strong in his right arm, he was like a pro baseball pitcher, and the bones show he got today's equivalent of a career-ending sports injury.
"If it happened to a contemporary baseball pitcher, they'd need surgery," says Owsley. The injury, he says, "took off a piece of bone off the back side of the shoulder joint."
Owsley says Kennewick Man stood about 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed about 170 pounds. And he wasn't any stranger to pain. K-Man, as he's known in eastern Washington, got hit on the head a few times and was stabbed with a basalt rock point that got stuck in his hip.
Owsley's research includes these big revelations about the Paleoamerican's origins. For one, Kennewick Man lived on the coast, not inland along the Columbia River where his bones were found. The scientists can tell from tiny bits of his bones and the enamel on his teeth that he ate mostly marine animals, like seals.
At his laboratory, he displays a cast of Kennewick Man's skull — alongside skulls of three Native Americans. Clearly, Kennewick Man does look different.
"It is a much narrower and longer — relatively longer — cranium, and the way the base of the cranium is configured," he says. "It is different from what we see in Native Americans."
Owsley doesn't dispute that Kennewick Man, or his people, passed on genes that now show up in Native American populations. But he doesn't think the evidence is sufficient to satisfy the repatriation law that requires Native American remains to be turned over to tribal authorities. npr 2

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