Your Montana Public Radio
Wed February 12, 2014
Ancient human remains from Montana ancestor of most Native Americans
DNA evidence recovered from ancient human remains found in Montana is providing definitive answers to the origin of Native Americans.
Scientists unveiled the new research published in the journal “Nature” at the Montana Historical Society in Helena on Wednesday. Remains of the so-called “Anzick boy” show a direct lineage with most native peoples in North, Central and South America.
It’s the story of a burial, putting to rest a two-year-old boy north of present-day Livingston. State Archeologist Stan Wilmoth says it was a Montana very different than what we see today; an area not far removed from receding glaciers about 12,600 years ago.
“We imagine they probably were in small extended family groups, following the mammoth herds,” Wilmoth said of the people in the area at the time of the burial. That young boy is now providing a lot of answers.
"I was just a small child in 1968 when the only Clovis burial site ever identified was accidentally discovered on my parents’ property in Wilsall, Montana,” said Stephanie Anzick, now a molecular biologist who has been studying the remains of the bones found on her parents’ place for years.
It’s the oldest human burial discovered in the U.S. and the only specimen ever found of the Clovis people. The Clovis are named for an archeological site in New Mexico and are defined by their use of distinctive sharpened stone tools, like scrapers and spearheads.
This last fall Dr. Anzick and an international team of scientists took this discovery to a much deeper level. They were able to produce the boy’s genome.
“The genome shows without any doubt that this child is (more) closely related to all Native American groups in both North America and South America than to any other group of human beings in the world,” said “Nature” study co-author Professor Eske Willerslev, who works with the Center for Geo Genetics at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.
The genome shows 80 percent of all Native Americans alive today are direct descendants of this boy’s family.
“That is just incredible,” Willerslev said. “You can say a direct relative, not only a relative, but a direct relative, so to speak, to so many contemporary people. So I think that’s extremely important.”
The research also confirms theories that Native Americans are of Asian descent, likely crossing into North America through a land bridge that has long since disappeared.
Montana State University Native American Studies Professor Shane Doyle says to tribes in the state, what’s just as important as the scientific discoveries, if not more-so, are the cultural discoveries made here. The Anzick boy was buried with about 120 of the sharpened stones tools for which the Clovis people are known. Some of these tools are hundreds of years older than the young child, indicating they were heirlooms given to the boy in death.
“This was a two-year old boy, he wasn’t a chief, he wasn’t a great hunter, he wasn’t a great warrior…but the respect and love that was shown for him was really beyond measure,” Doyle said.
This is why Montana tribes plan to make this a re-burial story too. Plans are to bury the bones as nearly as possible to their original location this Spring or Summer.
“We will be putting scientific data back in the ground, we will be putting conclusions or future research back in the ground. But, this boy is not meant to be put on somebody’s shelf and taken off when you feel like it,” Doyle said. “That’s not what his parents put him in the ground for.”