Montana Boy Bones Show Ancestral Links to Europe

Despite general resistence, representatives of tribes in the US recently gave their blessing for DNA analysis of the remains of a Stone Age child. Research conducted on the boy's genes indicate that Native Americans have European roots.
Von Rex Dalton

It must have been a pretty special child, otherwise the two-year old wouldn't have been buried in such a ceremonious manner. The boy was sprinkled with celebratory red dust and given distinctive stone artifacts for his last journey.

The characteristic fluting of the stone weapons serve as archeological evidence that the boy, who died some 12,600 years ago, came from the Clovis culture. It was one of the earliest New World groups, disappearing mysteriously a few centuries after the child's burial in present day Montana. From the summit of a hill towering over the burial site near the Yellowstone River, the boy's Ice Age contemporaries could monitor their hunting grounds for mammoth and bison.

Now a team of scientists led by the Danish geneticist Eske Willerslev has analyzed the boy's origins and discovered that he descends from a Siberian tribe with roots tracing back to Europe. Some of the boy's ancestors are likely even to have lived in present-day Germany.

Their findings go even further: More than 80 percent of all native peoples in the Americas -- from the Alaska's Aleuts to the Maya of Yucatan to the Aymaras along the Andes -- are descended from Montana boy's lineage.

Surpring Similarities

Last week, the scientists published the results  of sequencing the child's DNA in the scientific journal Nature. Late last year, the same team published the decoded genome of another early human: A juvenile buried near Lake Baikal in Siberia some 24,000 years ago. Their genomes showed surprising ancestral similarities.

This earned Willerslev's team an astounding publishing achievement in just 100 days: The decoding of the genomes of the oldest analyzed members of homo sapiens in both the Old and the New Worlds. This has allowed them to reconstruct the settlement of the Americas via the Beringia land bridge during the ice ages -- when what is now the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska was frozen over -- in greater detail than ever before.

A third of both juveniles' DNA can be traced to the earliest European. Physical evidence also supports this European origin: Archeologists discovered 30 ivory pendants at Mal'ta, the Stone Age settlement site near Lake Baikal where the remains were found. The pendants show great similarity to ones found at Hohle Fels cave, an important Paleolithic site in southern Germany's Swabian Jura mountains.

The results of the finds in Montana and Siberia now provide the scientists the opportunity to trace metabolic characteristics, susceptibility to disease and other properties during the intercontinental migrations.

Overcoming Resistance to Research

The analysis of the Montana probe is important for still another reason: It may signal a new era for genetic analysis of such ancient remains, overcoming a tradition of resistance from Native-American communities. Although American museums house the remains of many pre-historic inhabitants of North America, DNA analysis of them has largely been blocked by resistance from their descendants.

But this time, the relevance of the Willerslev team's studies was appreciated by representatives of the Crow, the Northern Cheyenne, the Flathead and the Blackfoot Nations. None of the leaders representing these nations near the burial site resisted the publication of the DNA data. "This is righteous science," Shane Doyle, a member of the Crow Nation, said after learning of Willerslev's project in September.

This success would not have been possible without the family that owned the land on which the remains were found in 1968. Years ago, the owners of the ranch, Mel and Helen Anzick, had the idea to have the bones' DNA analyzed. The challenge was later picked up by the couple's daughter, Sarah, herself a molecular biologist who worked on decoding the human genome in the late 1990s. She is a co-author of the Clovis publication in Nature.

Sarah had considered extracting DNA samples from the Clovis bones while working on the initial human genome project. But the technology was not mature enough at the time, and her plan faced resistance from some Native Americans.

Enthusiastic about the new findings, she said: "When I saw the results, I almost jumped out of my skin I was so excited." The Anzicks' 35 hectare (86 acre) property is located approximately 150 kilometers (93 miles) north of Yellowstone National Park, set amid undulating prairie. In past centuries the ranch's lookout hill served as a bison trap: Hunters could drive the animals over a cliff to more easily kill them for food.

At the same time the hill offered early inhabitants shelter from the fierce winds. The gales also blow the snow off the grasslands, thereby attracting foraging game that natives could hunt. Indeed year-round feed was the reason that Mel Anzick bought the land as pasture for his horses.

The boy's remains and the artifacts were uncovered by a tractor moving earth. Over subsequent years, portions of the collection were sent to various scientific groups for study across the United States. Some bones went to Arizona, others to Washington DC's Smithsonian Institution.

For decades, Native Americans were outraged by what they see as disrespectful treatment of remains -- their link to "the ancient ones" -- which were displayed in museums and shipped around like baggage. They fought tenaciously for their rights, earning in 1990 a federal law allowing for repatriation of human remains along with funerary artifacts.

However, the legislation only affected finds from government-owned land. The Montana boy's bones were found on private land. Thus it was up to the Anzick family to make the only known Clovis bones available to scientists for DNA sequencing.

An Explosive Issue

Such genetic analysis of Native American bones is highly controversial. It is a sacrilege to some. Others fear it could link their ancestors to Europeans, as this study has done. And some worried it could be misused in tribal disputes over who shares in the economic bounty from casinos that operate on the sovereign reservations.

An ongoing federal court case shows just how explosive the issue is. University of California archeologists are fighting for the right to conduct DNA analysis on a pair of 9,300 year-old skeletons found on the San Diego campus. If the scientists lose the case, many such human remains could be repatriated to the tribes.

The sequencing plans first materialized when Willerslev took on the project four years ago. In addition to being a renowned authority in decoding ancient DNA, Willerslev also has experience in negotiating with indigenous peoples on such sensitive projects. In 2011, he sequenced the first Aborigine genome from DNA in hair samples held in a British museum. This enabled him to show that Australia's original inhabitants descended from peoples who had left Africa a full 70,000 years ago.

Willerslev sought Aboriginal leaders' permission to publish the results. He remembers arriving in the Outback after a long drive, exasperated by his driver's assertions' that he would not get consent. "They will never agree, never agree", the driver repeated. After meeting Aborigine leaders, Willerslev won their endorsement for publication, even securing a written proclamation from the governing council.

Understanding Sensitivities

After starting the Clovis project about four years ago, Willerslev and colleagues planned to follow the same course and seek permission from Montana tribes for publication. The first meeting was organized by 70-year-old Montana archeologist Larry Lahren, who has helped the Anzicks to look after their collection for decades. He knew well the sensitivities, too. "Historically, the US government has treated Native Americans like livestock. It was always white man's rule," he said.

On a blue-sky September afternoon last year, the scientists finally were to meet Doyle of the nearby Crow Nation. Willerslev and some members of his team waited anxiously on the Anzick ranch for Doyle to arrive. Doyle knew nothing about the bones, but from the hill he could point to landmarks of more than a century of his family's history. While Doyle grew up amid poverty on the Crow reservation, he now has a doctorate and teaches at Montana State University in Bozeman.

Gathered at the burial site, Willerslev revealed the team's results: the remains' age, the boy's ancestry to native tribes of the Americas and the links to Siberia and Europe. Doyle's reaction would determine whether or not Willerslev's study could be published or not because the scientist had promised to destroy it if he didn't obtain permission.

After learning the results, Doyle was emotionally overcome. But then, with the tension relaxed, he joked with Willerslev about wondering if he would be told he himself was of Danish ancestry. Finally Doyle proclaimed: "This boy is my cousin."

Doyle fetched a drum from his van, conducted a short ceremony and sang to his newfound relative. Afterward, Doyle agreed to introduce Willerslev to the other Montana tribes, with the group setting off that week for reservation visits.

As a result of these discussions, plans are underway to rebury the bones at their discovery site on the Anzick ranch. There also is to be a roadside monument for all Native Americans to visit -- just like the white man's cemetery across the highway in the tiny hamlet of Wilsall.

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