The following is an excerpt from the Spring 2019 Issue of American Archaeology Magazine.
By David Malakoff
COVER IMAGE: A researcher works at Trail Creek Cave 2 in Alaska, where DNA was extracted from the tooth of a 9,000-year-old skeleton. | Credit: Paul Burger/NPS
“Your chance of success is less than one percent.” That was the discouraging prediction that geneticist Eske Willerslev heard five years ago when he arrived in Reno, Nevada, to ask the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe for permission to attempt to extract DNA from the mummified remains of a man who had been buried in Nevada’s remote Spirit Cave about 10,700 years ago.
“On the drive to the meeting, a lawyer for the tribe warned me that I probably wouldn’t get permission,” recalled Willerslev, a pioneer in ancient DNA analysis who works at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. The warning didn’t come as a surprise. Willerslev knew many U.S. tribes were skeptical of having researchers experiment on the remains of people they consider sacrosanct ancestors. And for a decade, the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone had been locked in a legal battle with the federal government to reclaim and rebury the mummy known as Spirit Cave Man, which archaeologists had discovered in 1940 near tribal lands. Although that battle wasn’t resolved, Willerslev believed it would be unethical to move ahead with any testing without the tribe’s approval.
The exterior of the rock shelter site of Lapa do Santo in Brazil where the remains of a number of ancient individuals analyzed in the Cell study were discovered. | Credit: André Strauss
Archaeologists work at Saki Tzul in Belize, where two approximately 7,400-years-old individuals were found. Researchers analyzed DNA that was extracted from their remains. | Credit: Keith Prufer
So Willerslev made his case. He told tribal leaders that he needed just a small bone sample to extract the DNA, which could reveal how Spirit Cave Man was related to other ancient Americans. The genetic material might also help the tribe in its legal battle, he suggested, if it showed that the mummy was related to modern Native Americans. “It was a very good discussion, I learned a lot about their concerns,” Willerslev recalled. When the discussion ended, the lawyer said, “I think your chances just increased to fifty percent.” But after that, Willerslev heard nothing for months. “I had kind of given up when I get a call: ‘We want you to do it.’” In 2015, Willerslev’s team successfully completed the painstaking task of extracting DNA from the brittle bones and sequencing it.
Now, the Spirit Cave genome has emerged as a crucial component of recent DNA studies that reveal, in unprecedented detail, how people spread across North and South America thousands of years ago.