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DNA Politics: Anzick Child Casts Doubt on Bering Strait Theory

Recent DNA analysis of the Anzick child rekindles the debate over the ethics of handling ancient remains and more.

Scientists from the University of Copenhagen and Texas A&M have analyzed the DNA of the remains of a young boy ceremonially buried some 12,600 years ago in Montana. Their new data sheds light on the ancestry of one of the earliest populations in the Americas, known as the Clovis culture, but also rekindles the debate over the ethics of handling ancient remains and the political consequences of scientific studies of Indian peoples. It also undercuts recent attempts by archaeologists to deny the antiquity of Indians and thus avoid the political and legal repercussions of disturbing ancient burial sites or mistreating ancient human remains.

The analysis, published last month in Nature, shows that today’s indigenous groups spanning North and South America are genetically related to the early peoples who roamed this continent, overturning previous, controversial findings by scientists and the courts. Over the past 15 years a subtle shift has occurred in the nomenclature of the oldest period in America’s prehistory. Whereas previously the inhabitants of this hemisphere in the period before 8,000 BC were known as Paleoindians (Ancient Indians), starting in 1999 a number of archaeologists began to insist on referring to them as Paleoamericans (Ancient Americans).

RELATED: More Reasons to Doubt the Bering Strait Theory

According to these archaeologists, recent scientific studies cast doubt on whether these ancient peoples were related to modern Indians. The change in terminology was needed to “avoid an inference of biological continuity between the current Native American populations and the earliest populations.”

There were concerns from some quarters that the change was due less to science and more to politics. It did not go unnoticed that the principle advocates for the term Paleoamerican were the archaeologists Robson Bonnichsen, the director of the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A&M University, and Richard Jantz, director of the Center for Forensic Anthropology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Both had also been lead plaintiffs in the famous suit brought by archeologists against the federal government, Bonnichsen, et al. v. United States, et al., otherwise known as “Kennewick Man.”

The Kennewick Man case brought to the fore simmering animosities between Indigenous Peoples and the archaeological community. The remains of a prehistoric person had been discovered in 1996 on the banks of the Columbia River in Kennewick County, Washington. Over the next eight years, a bitter legal battle ensued between archaeologists, who wished to study the body and store it for posterity, and the federal government, which was enforcing the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) on behalf of the Umatilla tribe, which wished to rebury him.

The archaeologists emerged victorious in 2004 when the courts ruled that there was no scientific evidence that the remains were Umatilla or related to any contemporary Indians. Given the length of time since Kennewick Man’s death, more than 9,000 years, and the then state of science, it was virtually impossible for the Umatilla to have scientifically proven a connection to him, and indeed, scientists could only speculate as to who he might or might not have been related to.

Thus the introduction of the new term, Paleoamerican, represented a legal coup as well as a political statement. If the most ancient peoples in the Americas were not Indians, then the past belonged to science, both as the arbiter of truth, and as the lawful owners (or legal guardians) of anything they might uncover.

David Hurst Thomas, curator of the Department of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, had already discussed the threat simple changes in language could pose in his book Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity, when he argued that, “The power to name reflected an underlying power to control the land, its indigenous people and its history.” The Choctaw anthropologist Joe Watkins took this a step further and noted ominously that “If the naming of geographic features carries with it such power, imagine the power of being able to name the culture that used that geography.”

The new genetic analysis of the Anzick child–found in Montana in 1968 but only recently was the technology available to retrieve and analyze his DNA–undercuts the idea that ancient Indians were not related to modern Indians and has now removed any reason for using the term Paleoamerican; these ancient people were not Americans, they were Indians.

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The Anzick infant, less than two-years old, died about 12,600 years ago. His family stained him with red ochre and he was buried carefully in a grave, likely wrapped in leather which subsequently disappeared over time, along with 115 bone and stone artifacts, all stained with red ochre as well. The child rested undisturbed until his remains were hit by a bulldozer in 1968. As the naturalist Doug Peacock relates in his book, In the Shadow of the Sabertooth:

It’s possible that no ancient American human skeleton has been treated more shabbily than the Anzick child. The discoverers, not understanding the significance of their find, took the burial materials home and scrubbed them hard with brushes in the sink, trying to get all that red stuff off. The fragmented human remains have been separated and handled by dozens, maybe many dozens of modern humans since their discovery. Cranial fragments were glued together with rubber cement. Everybody who came through carried off a few pieces of the child’s skeleton.

But in a sign that times are changing, the Anzick family, on whose land the child was found and who own the tiny skeleton, are working with Indian tribes in Montana to rebury the infant.

The scientists claim the genetic analysis proved that Indians were originally from Siberia and migrated across the Bering Strait 15,000 years ago. Michael Waters, the co-author of this study, published February 12 in the journal Nature, said to the press:

The genetic data… confirms that the ancestors of this boy originated from Asia… A single migration of humans introduced the majority of the founding population of the Americas south of the ice sheet at the close of the last Ice Age [15,000 years ago].

But this statement is by no means the consensus among those who study American prehistory, nor are his conclusions necessarily born out by the findings. If anything they actually raise more questions than they answer.

Waters and his associates found that the child is a member of one of the five “haplogroups,” of Mitochondrial DNA (passed from mother to children) that are commonly found among Indian people, haplogroup D. This halpogroup is widely found in Asia and Siberia, and there is no question that there are genetic links between the two hemispheres. What was very interesting was the Y-chromosome (passed from father to son) results, which was not reported in the press.

Branches 21 and 25 represent the most recent shared ancestry between Anzick-1 and other members of the sample. Branch 19 is considerably shorter than neighbouring branches, which have had an additional ~12,600 years to accumulate mutations.

In other words, compared to other similar DNA, for example those of certain Mayan Indians (the “neighboring branches”), the Anzick child’s DNA was approximately 12,600 years younger. Since the child was already 12,600 years old, it would mean that the Mayan DNA was at least 25,000 years old and imply that the Mayans had left Asia, or genetically separated from Asians (if indeed they actually came that way), more than 10,000 years before the current theory says they should have. Genetic studies have consistently shown that Indian DNA is very ancient, but since most archaeologists do not accept the idea that Indians have been in the Americas longer than 15,000 years, the discrepancies between the genetic dates and the mainstream archaeological views have yet to be explained to anyone’s satisfaction.

The theory that Indians first crossed into the Americas through the Bering Strait 15,000 years ago, although firmly held by archaeologists for more than 100 years, has come under increasing challenge, not simply from genetic evidence, but also from new archaeological discoveries in South America.