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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Prehistoric Remains Reveal Roots Of American Indians

A pole marks the location where the burial was found. (Sarah Anzick)

A pole marks the location where the burial was found. (Sarah L. Anzick)

The DNA of a young boy, buried in what is now Montana more than 12,000 years ago, shows his people were direct ancestors of many of today’s native people in the Americas.

This is the oldest genome ever recovered from the New World and the many artifacts found with the body show the boy was part of the Clovis culture, which existed in North America from about 13,000 years ago.

The remains were found in 1968 on a ranch owned by Sarah Anzick’s parents. She grew up to work on the Human Genome Project and eventually did some of the analysis of the remains.

Shane Doyle, a member of the Crow tribe, who teaches at Montana State University, helped Anzick and the other researchers with the sensitive issue of handling tribal remains.

They join Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to talk about the process.

Shane Doyle, a member of the Crow tribe, sings a Northern Cheyenne honor song for the child at the Anzick site, with evolutionary biologist Eske Willerslev and molecular biologist Sarah L. Anzick.  (Samuel Stockton White)

Shane Doyle, a member of the Crow tribe, sings a Northern Cheyenne honor song for the child at the Anzick site, with evolutionary biologist Eske Willerslev and molecular biologist Sarah L. Anzick. (Samuel Stockton White)

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Montana State's video about the research


  • Sarah Anzick, molecular biologist.
  • Shane Doyle, member of the Crow tribe who is an instructor in the Native American Studies program at Montana State University.




And when the ground thaws this spring in Montana, there's going to be a burial - and not just any burial - a reburial of the remains of a baby boy who was first buried there more than 12,000 years ago. You might have heard about this boy. They call him the Anzick child. His remains were studied by scientists who found a link between him and Native Americans who live in Montana today.

One of the researchers is Sarah Anzick - yes, the same Anzick. She is a senior research specialist at the Rocky Mountain Labs in Hamilton, Montana. She joins from Missoula. We're also joined by Shane Doyle, who's a member of the Crow tribe, who teaches Native American studies at Montana State. He helped the researchers on the sensitive issue of handling tribal remains. He's with us from Bozeman.

And, Sarah, let's start with you because the remains of this young boy were actually found on your parents' ranch.

SARAH ANZICK: Yes, that's correct. He was discovered in association with a large assemblage of Clovis artifacts. And this was found in 1968.

HOBSON: Is that why you went into this field?

ANZICK: No, it's not. I actually aspired to go to medical school or vet school and ended up in research.

HOBSON: But ended up researching this child's remains, which were found on your family's property.

ANZICK: Yeah. It's just kind of one of those unique situations that I found myself in. I have training in human genetics and genomics, and I actually worked in the early days on the Human Genome Project. And so it was really in the late 1990s that I kind of put two and two together and realized the unique position I was in to take a look at these ancient human remains and utilize my skills in genomics as well.

HOBSON: Now, Shane Doyle, let me bring you into this story. Tell us how you got involved in this in the first place.

SHANE DOYLE: Well, I was invited by a local archeologist over - around Livingston named Larry Lahren to give my contact information to a filmmaker in Denmark who was working with a scientist over there, a geneticist. And they both invited me to meet with them as well as Sarah at the Anzick site. But they really didn't give me any information in terms of, you know, I had no idea that a genome had been done. I knew very little about the site itself. But the place I knew a lot about, going back many generations as my family's homeland.

And then I was asked by the geneticist to go around the state and be introduced to some tribal people who, you know, were authorities and, you know, could make some strong opinions about this particular study and, in the course of that, Sarah Anzick's request to, you know, look into the possibility of repatriating, reburying these remains as well. And so that's where my role came in.

HOBSON: Well, tell us more about that because there is a big question about whether any of this should have been done in the first place.

DOYLE: Well, you know, I think that it's pretty common practice to look at ancient remains. You know where things are, you know, can be different is how those remains are treated afterwards and even beforehand. And so - and I think in this instance, you know, there were many efforts made to, you know, bring people aware of this. There was transparency. Then finally, you know, to finish off the study is to, again, return them to the next of kin and allow them to have a ceremony to heal this grave that had been disturbed.

HOBSON: Well, Sarah, do you see this boy as a scientific research experiment or as a person or a little bit of both? Or do you see humanity in somebody who was around so long ago?

ANZICK: You know, it's something that has been very near and dear to my heart. Obviously, I value him as a child, and I value that he must have been a very special child to have been buried with all of these artifacts, which is indicative of a parent's love. And as a mother myself, it's the respectful thing to do. I mean, this is an individual. It's not just a sample. I felt that this child was discovered because he had a story to tell.

And so I felt in my role I had a certain responsibility in which I could glean insight into the ancient past and do it in a respectful manner where I maintain control in handling of the remains. And I actually did a lot of the work myself so that I knew the very minimal amount of sample would be obtained and what was necessary to get the results.

HOBSON: Shane, what about that, especially that point that Sarah just made about how this must have been a special boy to have been buried in this way? What do you know about that?

DOYLE: Oh, yeah, it's remarkable. I've used the term the King Tut of North America just to kind of borrow it a phrase. You know, he was buried with 125 objects. You know, we're talking about a little boy whose parents weren't wealthy chiefs or anything like that. You have to assume, you know, this is during the Ice Age or just prior to that. He hadn't been an established hunter. He wasn't a politician or a medicine man.

And so it really does capture the imagination, what was happening that day when they put this little boy in there and then - into his grave with all these tools and, you know, 125. And a couple of the items in there were Elkhorn antlers that were at least 250 years older than the boy.


DOYLE: And so we're assuming that the family had held on to those, you know, heirlooms for many, many, many generations before they finally decided that this is where they were going to lay them to rest. And so anyone, when you give them that kind of a story, would just be captivated by the love that was shown for this little boy.

HOBSON: Well, what did you have to do in your capacity as kind of a mediator between the researchers from the university and the tribes?

DOYLE: I actually took people around. I introduced them. I let Eske, the scientist from Denmark, kind of tell his story. And I just, again, just tried to be a person who could build these bridges and allow people to speak for themselves. And, you know, I couldn't be more humbled by, you know, this whole thing and, you know, just my ability to - my opportunity to see this through and to allow the conversations to unfold between the scientists and the tribal people and to start this whole relationship, I think. And I think, you know, we have a lot to look forward to.

HOBSON: Well, Sarah, take us to what happens next. What will happen to the remains now that this research has been done?

ANZICK: We're working with Shane and the Crow tribe who will act as the lead tribe in a reburial process, which we're targeting to be the end of spring, early summer. We have to wait for the ground to thaw. And then there will be a ceremony and that's the next step.

HOBSON: Well, Shane, what's that going to mean to you to see this boy's remains be reburied right where they were originally?

DOYLE: Well, I see it as a healing process, as part of an overall healing process for native people. And, you know, we've kind of been rattled for the past 200 years and suffered through a lot of trauma. And for so many of us contemporary American Indians, you know, our whole lives has been about healing, and this is another opportunity to do that.

HOBSON: You have a song that you actually sang last September at the site, and I wondered if you could sing that for us now.

DOYLE: I'd be happy to share that with you and your audience.


DOYLE: (Singing in foreign language)

HOBSON: Shane Doyle, a member of the Crow tribe who teaches in the Native American studies program at Montana State University. And we've also been speaking with Sarah Ansick, a senior research specialist at the Rocky Mountain Labs in Hamilton, Montana. Sarah and Shane, thanks so much for joining us. And, Shane, thanks again for singing that song for us.

DOYLE: Thank you so much for having me.

ANZICK: Thank you. It's been a great pleasure.

HOBSON: And we've got a photo of Shane singing that song at the site in Montana at From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.


I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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