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Ancient DNA to Reconstruct History

Eske Willerslev, the director of the Center for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen, is using ancient DNA to piece together a clearer picture of human history, the New York Times' Carl Zimmer writes.

Zimmer traces Willerslev's interest in how various ethnic groups are related to one another to time he spent in Siberia when he and his brother wanted to meet members of the Yukaghir ethnic group. Rather than finding an isolated people, the Yukaghirs all had ancestors who were Russian or from another population, and only one older man could speak the native language. That set Willerslev thinking that ancient DNA could be used to determine the ancestry of groups like the Yukaghir.

No one was doing that quite yet in Denmark at that time, Zimmer notes, so Willerslev first concentrated on uncovering ancient DNA from ice cores. But then as more samples were uncovered, he turned his attention back to ancient humans, studying the genomes of 4,000-year-old man from Greenland, a 24,000-year-old bone from Siberia, and then others.

But working with samples tied to aboriginal groups brings up a number of ethical considerations, Zimmer says. Willerslev and his colleagues found analyzed a sample of hair collected in Australia in the 1920s and stored at the University of Cambridge to find that the ancestors of aboriginal Australians diverged from other non-Africans some 70,000 years ago, indicating that the ancestors of aboriginal Australians were the first Australian settlers.

A co-author on that study, Rasmus Nielsen of the University of California, Berkeley, became uncomfortable that they hadn't gotten the consent present-day aboriginal groups. Though Willerslev says he first didn't understand what was wrong, he went to Australia to meet with aboriginal leaders.

He's since taking a similar approach when working with Native Americans, and Willerslev lead the study that found that the Kennewick Man was most closely related to Native American groups.

The US Army Corps of Engineers, on whose land the skeleton was uncovered, has said that it would consider the request to release the Kennewick Man, or the Ancient One, to be re-buried.

"I'm a scientist, and it means I regret that important material is getting reburied," Willerslev says. "But when you find that these remains are genetically Native Americans, it's not our call anymore."