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The Dangers of Kennewick Man's DNA

06/30/2015 05:46 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2016

Dr. Chip Colwell is curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and the author of the forthcoming Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America's Treasures (University of Chicago Press). Follow him on Twitter @drchipcolwell

An article in Nature recently overturned our understanding of Kennewick Man, the controversial 9,300-year-old set of remains previously described as "the most important human skeleton ever found in North America." The study of Kennewick Man's DNA presents both opportunities and new challenges to archaeologists and Native Americans.

Kennewick Man was the subject of a nine-year legal battle between the government, archaeologists, and a coalition of five tribes from the Pacific Northwest. Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act--a 1990 federal law that establishes a process for tribes to claim ancestral remains and objects--the U.S. government had determined that the remains should be returned to the tribes. In 2004, the ninth circuit court of appeals ruled that the skeleton was not subject to NAGPRA in large part because, under the law, the remains were not "Native American." This legal conclusion seemed to be supported by studies of Kennewick Man's skeletal morphology, which suggested he was most closely related to Indigenous peoples in Polynesia and Japan.

Only now DNA analysis proves that Kennewick Man is an ancestor of today's Native Americans. This discovery affirms what the Umatilla, Yakima, Nez Perce, Wanapum, and Colville tribes have said for nearly 20 years. Oyt.pa.ma.na.tit.tite (the Ancient One), their name for the man, is their progenitor. The geneticists even found that one of the most closely related tribes to the Ancient One includes the Colville, situated just 200 miles from where the skeleton was found.

This latest twist is a spectacular convergence of two ways of understanding the past. In this case, genetic analysis and Native oral traditions are independent lines of evidence that support a single conclusion. Kennewick Man is another example of a growing body of genetic research that shows deep historical connections between living Native peoples and ancestors in their homelands. These discoveries may push scholars to consider how Native oral traditions retain collective memories of their distant origins.

This latest study of the Ancient One also presents two key challenges rooted in the certainty we assign to DNA analysis.

First, these findings could undermine federal law. To determine cultural affiliation under NAGPRA, museums and federal agencies must equally examine ten lines of evidence: geographical, kinship, biological, archaeological, linguistic, folklore, oral tradition, historical evidence, or other information or expert opinion. Although in Kennewick's case the evidence of biology and oral tradition now support each other, Native American beliefs should not be dependent on the confirmation of biological study. Because DNA evidence seems so certain--and so redemptive in Kennewick Man's case--it might encourage some to ignore the range of methods that can identify present and past groups. To focus only on DNA violates NAGPRA, which gives equal consideration to scientific and Native viewpoints.

Second, DNA is only a partial window to the past. When we consider identities, biological inheritance is only a piece of the puzzle. Kennewick Man's DNA tells us much about his roots and descendants--but not necessarily a lot about his own lived sense of himself. Archaeologists can explore a range of data to illuminate his identity--where he lived, how he lived--and Native Americans can provide insights based on their traditional narratives of the days before. But the Ancient One's DNA was just one part, perhaps even a tiny part, of who he really was.

Every human is much more than what is written into our genes. Although Kennewick Man's genetic story is vitally important, we should not let DNA dominate the law or our understanding of Native American identities.