Their conclusion: The Ancient One is closely related to at least one of the five tribes that originally fought to rebury him on spiritual grounds. When radiocarbon dating revealed that he was thousands of years old, a legal tug of war began between local tribes and scientists who wanted to study him, but ended in the tribes’ defeat in 2004.“This is great news for us,” says Jim Boyd, chair of the business council of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in Washington. The findings are “ironic” given the long controversy over where the bones should end up, says lead author Eske Willerslev, a paleogeneticist at the University of Copenhagen.To scientists, he is “Kennewick Man.” To Native Americans, he is the “Ancient One.” More than a decade ago, Native Americans lost their claim for custody of this 8500-year-old skeleton from Washington state, when a federal appeals court ruled there was no evidence he was related to any modern tribe.Now, after several false starts, researchers have succeeded in sequencing Kennewick Man’s genome. Army Corps of Engineers, which currently has legal custody of Kennewick Man, is also studying whether to return the nearly complete skeleton—which was found eroding from the shore of the Columbia River in Kennewick, Washington, in 1996—to the tribes.Like Kennewick Man, the girl had a long, high skull, suggesting that skull shape did not correspond with ancestry.But other researchers found that study’s methods wanting.
Thus, earlier researchers “got it wrong,” says co-author Marcia Ponce de León of the University of Zurich in Switzerland, because they assumed that the individual features of the Kennewick skull represented those of the larger population to which he belonged.
Some researchers had argued on that basis that Kennewick Man was part of an early wave of migration to the Americas and that today’s Native Americans belonged to a later, unrelated wave.
For years there was no way to scientifically resolve the question, in part because tribes were able to claim many of the bones and rebury them, in accordance with their cultural practices, without genetic or other studies.
Carbon-14 is continually formed in nature by the interaction of neutrons with nitrogen-14 in the Earth’s atmosphere; the neutrons required for this reaction are produced by cosmic rays interacting with the atmosphere.
Radiocarbon present in molecules of atmospheric carbon dioxide enters the biological carbon cycle: it is absorbed from the air by green plants and then passed on to animals through the food chain.