A little over a year ago the complete genome sequence of a Clovis individual, the 12,500 Anzick child, was published. His sequence gave us a fascinating glimpse of ancient Native American genetic diversity, and new insights into the early peopling of the Americas. At the time, however, I was unhappy about how the media covered it:
“Unfortunately, several press reports chose to find controversy in a decidedly non-controversial story by giving undue weight to problematic “alternative” explanations of Native American origins, including the Solutrean hypothesis, and other “European contributions” to Native American ancestry.”
Last week saw the announcement (also from Eske Willerslev’s lab group: they’re amazingly prolific) of the sequencing of yet another significant ancient American genome: the 8,500 year old skeleton from Washington popularly called “Kennewick Man.” This time the press did an exemplary job of covering the news.
Kennewick Man’s genome showed that he was closely related to other Native Americans, both ancient and contemporary, and shared genetic ancestry with Northern Native Americans, including the Colville Tribe (the extent to which he is related to other North American tribes is yet unknown as we have very little genetic data from Native Americans in the United States). The DNA findings refute older hypotheses (held by a small number of scholars on the basis of “Caucasoid” cranial features) that Kennewick Man was variously of European, Ainu, or South Asian or Polynesian affiliation. As with Anzick and every other ancient American individual we’ve sequenced, the genetic evidence from Kennewick Man is unequivocal: he is
Native American ancestral to today’s Native Americans.*
In contrast to the media coverage of Anzick, I think the press this week has done an excellent job. There was no talk about the long-discredited “Solutrean hypothesis” (which, if it weren’t already in its coffin, would have taken a further hit with the revelation that Kenewick Man’s genome showed absolutely no evidence of ancient European admixture), no emphasis on any “European connections” (which is good because there weren’t any!), and careful discussion of the long and contentious backstory to the Kennewick Man controversy and lawsuit. An excellent article written by Ewan Callaway for Nature News goes through the history of the controversy, but also stresses how the discipline has changed in recent years:
The genome of a famous 8,500-year-old North American skeleton, known as Kennewick Man, shows that he is closely related to Native American tribes that have for decades been seeking to bury his bones. The finding, reported today in Nature, seems likely to rekindle a legal dispute between the tribes and the researchers who want to keep studying the skeleton. Yet it comes at a time when many scientists — including those studying Kennewick Man — are trying to move past such controversies by inviting Native Americans to take part in their research.
(He also quoted me at the end of the article)
And writing for the New York Times, “New DNA results show Kennewick Man was Native American”, Carl Zimmer not only discussed the science and the controversial history of the research in a thoughtful way, he also quoted Native American community members and scholars (including my colleague at the University of Texas, Kim TallBear) to explain why Kennewick Man is so significant and why some Native American groups in North America are reluctant to participate in genetic research. He also interviewed me, giving me the chance to talk about efforts in American anthropological genetics to make the field more inclusive, such as the Summer Internship for Native Americans in Genomics program. (On a personal note, it was thrilling to be interviewed by one of my favorite science journalists!).
Indian Country Today went into a detailed discussion about the discrepancies between determining ancestry by skull shape, and genetics. Kristina Killgrove, a bioarchaeologist writing for Forbes, also discussed in some detail the issues with ancestry assignment based on morphological traits, and quotes Deborah Bolnick (my mentor at UT):
“Just because Kennewick Man looked different than later and contemporary Native Americans does not mean that he was not related to them. Rather, other factors, such as adaptation or local environments or random changes over time, may have contributed to the physical differences between Kennewick Man and contemporary Native Americans.”
I think that many readers of this blog will find these article interesting, particularly those who argued in a previous comment thread that Kennewick Man must be European because of the way his skull looks.
In any case, I was pleased that the focus of the majority of news articles that I saw was not on giving credence to discredited ideas about Native American history, but rather on discussing the scientific, legal, and social implications of this work. The field has moved on to more interesting questions than whether Europeans contributed to the ancestry and culture of ancient Native Americans, and it’s encouraging to see that the media has as well.
Finally, I want to give particular credit to the journalists for writing such excellent stories under such a short time pressure: Nature gave them only about 24 hours’ notice before the embargo was going to be lifted. They aren’t pleased about it. Rumor has it that this ridiculously short embargo was related to the appearance of Eske Willerslev on a PBS documentary this week in which he talks about the results, and the need for the paper to be published before the program aired.
*Many thanks to Roger Echo-Hawk for suggesting this phrasing as being more accurate and more useful. Talking about the relationship between genetic ancestry and cultural identity is very difficult, and a lot of the language that we geneticists use implicitly (and inappropriately) reinforces racial categories. That is never my intention, but it is often difficult to identify in my own writing, and so I always welcome feedback on this!
Related: I’m keeping an eye out for how the fringe archaeology blogs handle this subject, and I might revisit it in a future blog post, if it seems warranted. If you find any particularly interesting treatments of this topic, please drop a link to it in the comments!