Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Ancient One

That is what Tribal people called the skeletal remains that white anthropologists dubbed “Kennewick Man” when he was unearthed along the Columbia in 1996, and quick carbon dating suggested he was 7,500—9,000 years in the ground. They argued that the remains were theirs, and that they should be allowed to rebury them properly.

Some scientists argued otherwise—the archaeologist James Chatters initially described the skull as Caucasian, and produced a reconstruction of his face suggesting that Kennewick Man looked a bit like the actor Patrick Stewart. The scientists mounted a vigorous campaign for more testing and against the Indians favoring reburial. (To be fair, Chatters subsequently changed his mind on the Caucasian idea.)

It all helped fuel a movement suggesting that Indians—Native Americans with Asian genetic connections who had crossed the land bridge tens of thousands of years ago—might not have been alone here. Or even first? Advocates of the “Solutrean hypothesis” held that during the Ice Age anatomically modern humans from Europe crossed via an ice bridge or over open water to North America, and the Solutrean high hunting culture of present-day Europe (roughly 20,000 years ago) became known as the Clovis culture in North America.

Others have argued about later, but still early arrivals of European peoples. Kennewick man was a marker in the scientific quiver of all such early European influence advocates, and eventually the courts backed the non-Tribals, and the Ancient One was measured and shared, to some extent, across the scientific world.

On Thursday, 21 years later, Danish scientists published an analysis of DNA obtained from the skeleton. Kennewick Man’s genome clearly does not belong to a European, the scientists said:

“It’s very clear that Kennewick Man is most closely related to contemporary Native Americans,” said Eske Willerslev, a geneticist at the University of Copenhagen and lead author of the study, which was published in the journal Nature: (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vnfv/ncurrent/full/nature14625.html).
According to the team of Danish scientists, who examined DNA from across the world, the Ancient one apparently has a close relationship with the Colvilles in north central Washington State.

So the Indians were right, they have the closest relationship to the Ancient One, and I imagine that a ceremonial reburial will eventually happen somewhere in the Northwest.  But what does the whole episode tell us about advocacy and science in the service of certain belief patterns.

I’ve wondered from the beginning how much we can tell about a skeleton by the shape of a skull? Think about the variation in skull shape among your neighbors and friends, maybe even within your own extended family. I immediately thought about that period when nineteenth century “scientists” thought that skull shape said something about personality—phrenology, wasn’t it? Apparently some in the scientific community came to a similar conclusion before the Danish DNA analysis.  It might have been why Chatters abandoned the Caucasian skull hypothesis.

But given that, what drives science—and lay students—to look for a European explanation for New World development? It is now pretty certain that outliers from Europe have made landfall from time to time over the eons. We know that the Norse found Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland over 1000 years ago,, during the Great Warming, built communities, and then were frozen out of the last two by the little ice age.

But all evidence is that the major developments in what would become known as North and South America—the mound cities and Mississippian Culture, the Mayans, Aztec, pre-Inca and Inca cultures, the domestication of over half of the world’s major agricultural products, Tlingit art, and Makah whaling owed nothing to Europe and Europeans. Whatever Asian migrations and interactions of different migrations occurred, what developed here before 1492 was indigenous to those ancient peoples who share more DNA with Siberian nomads than they do with German burghers or English sailors.

As far as we know now, all human DNA weaves back to an African beginning. And following the journeys out of that continent and across the world is exciting stuff.  But I think we’ve had enough of putting white Europeans at the center of all important movements—we have as much to learn from the stories that the Ancient One passed on in his time and to his progeny, which might now be scattered across the two continents, mixed with other threads and carried in the thousands of stories of creation and migration that were here when Columbus first set foot at Hispanola.

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For the NYT account of the Danish scientists’ findings:



  1. Yes, but. Recent DNA work like that being done by National Geographic's Genomic Project appears to show that a significant portion of Native American DNA (maybe a third?) is associated with sources in waht is now considered western Asia/eastern Europe rather than eastern Asia. Here's a recent map: https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com/human-journey/ Also an earlier story (predates recent results for the Ancient One, but still seems relevant): http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/11/131120-science-native-american-people-migration-siberia-genetics/

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