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Friday, June 19, 2015

Mystery Not Exactly Solved

"There's some kind of irony there."
"It is very clear that genome sequence shows he is most closely related to contemporary Native Americans."
"We can see very clearly that Kennewick Man is more closely related to present day Native Americans than he is to anybody else,"
"We probably will never be able to say who is, in fact, the closest living relative of Kennewick Man."
Eske Willerslev, University of Copenhagen

"We're just glad the findings are able to prove what we've maintained all along. For us, it's great news."
"... We want him back in the ground for his final resting place, and not to be poked and prodded."
Jim Boyd, chairman, Colville tribal council, Washington State, U.S.A.

This clay facial reconstruction of Kennewick Man, who died about 8,500 years ago in what's now southeast Washington, was based on forensic scientists' study of the morphological features of his skull.
This clay facial reconstruction of Kennewick Man, who died about 8,500 years ago in what's now southeast Washington, was based on forensic scientists' study of the morphological features of his skull.   Brittney Tatchell/Smithsonian Institution 
"It is a much narrower and longer — relatively longer — cranium, and the way the base of the cranium is configured it is different from what we see in Native Americans."
Physical anthropologist Douglas Owsley of the Smithsonian Institution
In times long distant from our own, of prehistory, a land bridge is held to have linked Siberia across the Bering Sea, enabling early proto humans to reach North America from Asia. Some 25,000 years ago early populations moved southward along the Pacific Coast, then spread east to the Atlantic, and south into South America. Human life is held by anthropologists to have originated in Africa across time immemorial.

And from Africa, man bipedalled his way elsewhere in the world, to finally arrive on the North American continent. Migrations continued to spread humankind by sea over the Pacific, and much later from Europe by Vikings until Columbus 'discovered' America. Moving from vast aeons ago to the present, in 1996 a young man made his way into mud flats on the Columbia River and found a rock, dislodging it to realize that it had vestigial teeth and was in fact a skull.

Well preserved remains of a 9,000-year-old man had been found. Excavation led to the finding of an almost complete prehistoric skeleton, revealing the presence of nearly 400 bones. A stone spear point was embedded in the skeleton's hip, revealing new bone growth in the healing process. This skeleton was named Kennewick Man. He was found to have been 5-foot 8-inches in height, judged to be between 40 or 50 years old, and right-handed.

From the condition of his muscular-skeleton remains it was ascertained he had spent his lifetime spear hunting, his bone chemistry leading to the conclusion he had spent most of his life on the Pacific Coast on a diet of fish and related marine life. And he had been ceremoniously buried, on his back, arms at his sides, palms down. He was found because erosion of recent vintage had revealed his remains.

He was named by modern local indigenous people, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, the "Ancient One', and claimed as one of their ancestors. And it was their intention to take possession of the remains and to bury them once again, with ceremony not unlike the original interment proceedings. Understandably, the Native American claims were opposed by anthropologists; scientists wanted to delve deeper into the mystery of what and who he was.

Such revelation might have indicated the migration of a white European, of an Asian, a Polynesian, the possibilities endless, and the re-shaping of the understanding of the migration process perhaps enhanced in the final analysis. Initial attempts in the extraction of DNA were fruitless due to contamination. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers control the area where Kennewick Man's remains were discovered; the government supported the native claims.

In 2000 the U.S. Interior Department ruled in favour of the five tribes' claims that he was one of their own. And preparations were underway to hand the remains over under laws protecting native grave sites. Anthropologists, wanting the opportunity to conduct DNA investigations sued for access. In 2004 a court ordered the remains be made available for scientific enquiry on the basis that the government and native tribes had not succeeded in proving kinship.

A later experiment succeeded in extracting a full genome from a minuscule piece of bone from Kennewick Man's hand. Using DNA samples from the local Colville tribe, and that small part of a hand bone, it was proven that Kennewick Man was indeed of Native American heritage representing either as an ancestor of modern native populations or a related specimen with a common ancestor.

As a result of that skeletal discovery, each side in the dispute; one the native population wishing to honour a ancestor had their claims proven but not entirely to the satisfaction of still-unconvinced scientists; secondly, the scientists were given the opportunity to proceed with their investigation looking for linkage and time frame, before The Ancient One was buried once again, with all due ceremonies attending him.

Still, not everyone is satisfied that scientific enquiry has been fulfilled in its mission. And there's at least one scientist who isn't convinced by the genetic evidence. Physical anthropologist Douglas Owsley, an expert on bones, displays a cast of Kennewick Man's skull in his laboratory — alongside skulls of three Native Americans. Kennewick Man appears decidedly different. To bury him now would be precipitate, and unfair to science, feels Dr. Owsley.

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