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kissing cousins with kennewick man?

 While away on holiday (gloat!) I got the opportunity for uninterrupted listening to podcasts :) One of these was a July episode of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe, which included a discussion of the (in)famous Kennewick Man remains. These 9,000-years-old bones have been the focus of considerable controversy in the US, where they were claimed by Native American tribe as being an ancestor's bones & so not available for scientific study. However, this belief was overruled in 2004 by a US Court of Appeals Judge, allowing scientists to continue studying the surprisingly complete skeleton. 

Unfortunately, that study has had to focus on anatomy: an attempt to obtain and amplify DNA from the bones concluded that

No DNA suitable for PCR amplification could be extracted from the Kennewick samples studied. Thus, no conclusion regarding its ethnic ancestry or cultural affiliation based on DNA can be made.

While some sequences were found, these matched DNA from individuals involved in the analysis & so were most likely modern contamination. This means that data from - among other things - analyses of cranial and facial morphology have been used to try to determine the likely origins of Kennewick Man. As the fearless investigative team at Riddled, Inc. report, these analyses have been used to justify some rather shaky conclusions, including a rather tenuous link to New Zealand. One cannot better the Riddled team's take on this one :)

 

 
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including a rather tenuous link to New Zealand

Indeed. The Kennewick team make an issue of their theory that Moriori are descended from the Ainu people now confined to Northern Japan. Both being the closest match to the skull of the Kennewick remains. Obviously the question of Moriori origins isn't central to their work, but I guess they wanted to show that the ancestors of the Ainu had globe-trotting tendencies.

I had a rush of blood to the head and downloaded a copy of the Howells database of craniofacial measurements that is the basis for this conclusion. There are measurements for Ainu and Moriori.

The database also has data for skulls 'acquired' from Guam (Micronesia), the Philippines, Formosan indigenous tribespeople (Ayatal), native Hawaiians, and a PNG group, the Tolai -- all speaking Austronesian languages related to Moriori, and representing different stages of expansion out across the Pacific, starting in Taiwan about 5200 years ago. So whether it was a group of Ainu or some quite different population who moved down through East Asia and then radiated out from Taiwan, if craniofacial comparisons mean *anything*, then these groups -- intermediate samples from the expansion -- should look *more* like Moriori (and mainland Maori) than the Ainu do.

But they don't. I can't help concluding that the craniofacial method is worthless... at least for tracing population movements where there are small-group bottlenecks and founder effects, and heavy selective pressures. Which is of course why everyone stopped using that kind of physical anthropology once DNA methods became available, and why a lot of old textbooks became obsolete very rapidly.

In the Kennewick Man case, I suppose the researchers' main remit was to show that the skeleton was *not* related to any modern Native Americans (so that it could be retained for study rather than re-buried), and the methods they used to reach that conclusion weren't so important.

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