Why test K-Man's DNA if the tests are pointless?

WHEN THE DEPARTMENT of the Interior stepped into the Kennewick Man fracas back in summer 1998, the idea was to break a two-year courtroom deadlock between Federal agencies, academic scientists, and Native Americans all laying claim to the 9,000-year-old bones. But Interior's latest move in the case threatens to create roadblocks of its own.

On January 31, Interior consulting archeologist Francis P. McManamon announced that his office plans to try to extract DNA samples from the bones, in hopes of identifying which, in any, living Native American tribes are most closely related to the skeleton.

McManamon based his decision on a report commissioned by Interior from two eminent experts in DNA extraction and identification: Noreen Tuross, a biochemist with the Smithsonian Institution, and Connie Kolman of the National Institutes of Health. But now that the full text of the Tuross/Kolman report has been released, it's hard to see what support it offers Interior's position.

Far from recommending DNA analysis on the remains, Tuross and Kolman question whether further testing can produce any hard information about K-Man's relationship to others of his species, let alone information useful in tracing his genealogy. Just a few salient quotes from the 16-page report: "Endogenous DNA [in old specimens] is typically damaged to an extent that [analysis] can be quite difficult. . . . Spectacular claims of successful DNA extraction . . . from extremely old specimens . . . generally have been disproved. . . . Recent information regarding the general organic preservation of the skeleton in question . . . further strengthens the possibility that no DNA remains in a state that is useful for genetic analysis." The authors also make it clear that instead of the few grams of bone that were required for dating the skeleton, several more ounces would have to be destroyed merely to determine if further DNA testing is feasible.

In their conclusion, Kolman and Tuross admit that "in the abstract" genetic typing of an ancient skeleton may have potential research value. But "a complete delineation of research potential was not the issue we were to address in this document. Rather the utility of DNA data in assigning a skeleton to potential cultural and/or biological affiliation with contemporary American Indians was discussed. . . . It is our considered opinion that, for all the parties concerned, the genetic analysis of this skeleton may not yield the resolution that is so dearly sought."

THAT BEING THE CASE, why is Interior determined to go ahead with a procedure sure to infuriate further Native Americans, most of whom believe that even the limited "destructive testing" of the Kennewick remains thus far violates the spirit of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)?

The answer would appear to be: politics, pure and simple. "This action is not meant to set a precedent under NAGPRA, and it is not what we would normally do in such a case," says Interior spokesperson Stephanie Hanna. "But this case was controversial long before Interior ever got involved in it, and we believe it requires extraordinary measures."

But if the DNA testing isn't being justified under the act supposed to govern all such discoveries, what is its legal justification? Interior has less than a month and a half to come up with an answer capable of satisfying the federal judge in Portland who has ordered the matter resolved by March 24.

McManamon will get a chance to rehearse his arguments this Friday when he meets in Walla Walla with the five Eastern Washington tribes. He'd better be prepared for a tough audience.

For more on Kennewick Man, see our K-Man special coverage page.

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