By Rachel K Wentz ( | First Posted: Jun 19, 2015 02:44 PM EDT

(Photo : State Hermitage Museum in Russia)

In the summer of 1996, two young men stumbled upon a skeleton. The bones were eroding out of the bank of the Columbia River outside Kennewick, Washington and dated to over 8,000 years ago, setting off an eight-year legal controversy over the origins of these ancient remains. Now, new evidence, in the form of DNA, adds another dimension to this complicated tale.

The issue centers on Kennewick Man's ancestors. Early analyses of the skull indicated possible European affiliation, since its dimensions held certain traits in common with populations of European descent. This inflamed Native American groups, who claimed the remains were obviously Native American, since they predate the presence of Europeans in North America. Thus, the legal battle ensued.

Scientists argued for the right to study the skeleton, since such ancient remains are rare and can tell us much about the peopling of the Americas. They argued the skeleton was far too old to be linked to any living tribes and the value afforded by their examination superseded claims from protesting groups. Native Americans, on the other hand, wanted the skeleton to be turned over for reburial under the provisions of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which grants ownership over remains that are culturally affiliated with living Native American groups.

In the end, the scientists won, and the quest for Kennewick Man's origins, along with his DNA, began.

Early attempts failed. DNA degrades over time and its recovery can be compounded by the environment in which the skeletal material is found; in this case, the muddy banks of the Columbia River. But with improvements in technology, the latest attempt was successful, and the results indicate that Kennewick Man is more closely related to modern Native Americans that to any other population worldwide.

"We will never be able to say what population, what individual in the Americas, is most closely related to [Kennewick Man] simply because most Native Americans haven't been sequenced," says Eske Willerslev, a geneticist at the University of Copenhagen and a co-author of the study. "What we can say is that Kennewick Man is more closely related to some Native American groups than others."

This latest research, published this week in Nature, is sure to stoke this continuing controversy. Although Kennewick Man has now been securely linked to modern Native Americans, the next step will be determining which living groups, if any, he is directly related to. And for that, they will need additional sampling from living Native Americans.

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