The debate over an ancient skeleton known as ‘Kennewick Man’ has been reignited after genetic analysis has revealed his DNA is more closely related to modern Native Americans than to anyone else.

The 9,000-year-old was originally claimed as an ancestor by Native Americans, who called for his remains to be reburied. But a group of anthropologists said the specimen’s features were not similar to people from local tribes, arguing that it had European features and could not be closely related.

It sparked a fierce legal battle after its discovery along the shores of the Columbia River in Washington State in 1996, with the anthropologists winning the legal bid to study the bones.

Kennewick Man or Ancient One

The skeleton was one of the most complete ever found, considering its age, with scientists suggesting it could provide an unprecedented insight into America’s early inhabitants.

On the other hand, local Native American tribes, naming the skeleton ‘the Ancient One’, said the remains should not be studied. Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, asked the US government to seize the bones and return them so they could be reburied.

Anatomical studies revealed that while Kennewick Man, or the Ancient One, had similarities to Europeans and shared features with groups such as the Ainu in Japan Polynesians. However, this study began in 2004 and there have since been many genetic advances that have been able to reveal new discoveries.

Scientist have more recently extracted DNA from a hand bone, and compared the genome (entire genetic code) with genetic data from around the world.

DNA Testing Provides Answers

Study author Prof Eske Willerslev, from the Centre for GeoGenetics at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, University of Copenhagen, said: “The first important question we tried to address was to what contemporary population is Kennewick Man most closely related to. And it is very clear that the genome sequence shows he is most closely related to contemporary Native Americans.”

He Added: “In fact we also got Ainu genome-wide data from a Japanese chief and we also had Polynesian [data] for comparison, as well as what is available across the world, and Kennewick Man did not show any significance in terms of having more Ainu or Polynesian DNA than other contemporary Native Americans.

“From that perspective, I think we can conclude very clearly he is most clearly related to contemporary Native Americans.”

Further detail revealed that the genome was most closely related to DNA from the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, one of the five tribes who originally claimed Kennewick Man as an ancestor.

Although the four other tribes did not provide DNA, the researchers suggested that they would also be closely related.

Prof Willerslev said: “From my understanding of the history between these five tribes, there have been intermarriages between these tribes for many, many years, as far back as anyone can remember, so my expectation is that the other four tribes would also be closely related to Kennewick Man.”

Jim Boyd, from the Colville tribe, told BBC News how glad he felt after the discovery. He said “We’re very pleased with the finding… 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.”

“We need the Ancient One to be respected and returned to the ground. That’s what we believe and that is what many tribes around us believe.”

Remains Kept in ‘Neutral Place’

The remains are currently held by the Burke Museum at the University of Washington, being designated as a neutral place to keep them. They are not on display and any access to Kennewick Man / the Ancient One is regulated by the US Army Corps of Engineers. It is not currently clear what will happen to the remains in future.

Mr Boyd said his tribe and others were continuing their legal action to reclaim the specimen, and hoped that the latest genetic evidence would provide them with a stronger case.

Although the authors of the study were not exactly taking any sides Professor Willerslev did comment that: “I guess you can say there is some kind of irony.

“The reason why we can come to this conclusion scientifically speaking is because the remains were kept out for science. At the same time, you can say the conclusions show that Native Americans were right, and maybe it should have been a different decision in the first place.”

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