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Research team says most Native Americans related to Anzick boy

Enterprise photos by Shawn Raecke

Sarah Anzick, the daughter of Mel and Helen Anzick and a research specialist at Rocky Mountain Labs in Hamilton, talks Tuesday about results of genetic testing on the Anzick boy's bones.



Some have dubbed him Montana’s King Tut.

In 1968, when contractors digging for loose rock in a Shields Valley bluff accidentally unearthed the remains of a 2-year-old boy whose bones were stained with red ocher, they had no idea they’d found one of North America’s most significant archaeological sites. 


Shane Doyle, a Native American studies professor at Montana State University, talks about the importance of discoveries related to the Anzick boy’s bones, at Mel and Helen Anzick’s home on Old Clyde Park Road, Tuesday.


No one suspected that the boy would eventually help tell the story of how the first Americans got here or from where they came.

But this week, a team of researchers who have been conducting genetic testing on the boy’s 12,600-year-old bones announced they’ve run a complete genome sequence that verifies the boy found at the Anzick Site is related to most Native Americans in North and South America. 

They’ve also determined the boy is of Eurasian descent, making it likely his ancestors traveled from Siberia to Alaska and then down into Montana. 

The paper, titled “The Genome of a Late Pleistocene Human From a Clovis Burial Site in Western Montana,” will be published this week in the scientific journal Nature. The paper is co-authored by Eske Willerslev, a geneticist at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark; Sarah Anzick, the daughter of Mel and Helen Anzick on whose property the site was found and a research specialist at the Rocky Mountain Labs in Hamilton; Michael Waters, an early American archeologist at Texas A&M University; and Shane Doyle, a Native American studies professor at Montana State University.


Eske Willerslev, a geneticist at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, answers questions about the research on the Anzick boy's bones.


“The Anzick child is a direct ancestor to many Native Americans today,” Willerslev said during a Nature telephone press conference on Tuesday. “As such, our study is in agreement with the truth that present-day Native Americans are direct descendants of the first Americans.”

Doyle said that although tribal oral traditions have long confirmed the scientific findings, the paper would force a paradigm shift in archeology.

“You cannot overstate the importance,” Doyle said in a recent interview. “This is one of the most significant scientific revelations in the Americas. We know for sure, without any argument, that the same people have been here for 12,000 years. All the archaeology that comes from this point forward is seen in a new context.”

The Anzick site was discovered on the property of Mel and Helen Anzick near Wilsall. Along with the remains of the child, the discoverers found more than 100 red paleolithic points, bifaces, unifaces and foreshafts. It is the only known Clovis-period burial and the earliest cultural affiliation of human remains and artifacts in the Northern Hemisphere. 

The Anzick site is also likely the first evidence of religion in North American archeology. 

Doyle, a member of the Crow Tribe who is working as a consultant to the researchers studying the Anzick child, said he was startled by the profound love the Clovis people must have had for the child because they were a hunter-gather society who buried him with so many valuable tools. The tools might represent what the boy would have needed to hunt in the afterlife.

“It would be like putting everything you valued most — your cell phone, your laptop, your big screen TV, everything — in the coffin with your child,” Doyle said.


The first Americans

The Clovis people are the earliest documented culture in North America accepted by most archaeologists. They lived at the end of the last ice age, at about the same time that several large mammals such as the woolly mammoth and the short-faced bear were going extinct. The culture got its name from the first site associated with the people, which was found near Clovis, New Mexico, in 1932. 

Graphic courtesy of Matthew C. Green

This graphic depicts the possible migration route through an ice-free corridor during the last ice age that humans might have followed to populate North America.


Early American archeology has long debated the origin of Native Americans. Some have surmised Native Americans are descended from a group of East Asians who crossed the Bering Sea via a land bridge. When Kennewick Man was discovered in Washington in 1996, some said he looked “European,” which seemed to verify theories of a European origin for Native Americans. But the sequencing of the genome from the Anzick child puts other theories about the origins of the first Americans to rest, the researchers said.

Willerslev, an expert in ancient DNA, has also studied the remains of a 24,000-year-old Siberian boy from a site near the shores of Lake Baikal. Genes found in that 3-year-old boy match some genes found today in Eurasians in the Middle East and Europe and in Native Americans, he said. 

Willerslev said the Mal’ta people from Siberia contributed genes to modern Europeans, Asians and Native Americans. Native Americans and the Mal’ta people share about one-third of their genes. 

The genetic analysis in the paper will also report a gene diversion, Willerslev said. Although the Clovis people appear to have been related to people who came from Siberia, once people reached the Americas, one of the last continents to be populated, they apparently diverged into two groups. 

Although the Anzick child is closely related to at least 80 percent of all Native Americans, Willerslev said he is a direct descendant of some and more like a cousin to others, such as some tribes in Canada. He cautioned genetic information isn’t available for all tribes in North and South America.


Consulting the tribes

Although the scientists’ findings are groundbreaking, some questions remain about who has control of the remains and how the studies were conducted.

Larry Lahren, a Livingston archeologist and longtime caretaker of the Anzick Site, said he removed himself from the team studying the boy’s remains when he learned some researchers wanted to conduct genetic testing. 

He said he believed the tribes had not given their permission to study the boy’s remains.

Lahren believes the boy belongs to the tribes under an expansion to Montana’s Human Skeletal Remains and Burial Site Protection Act approved in 2001.

“I don’t think I have the colonial right to study the known ancestors of living people without their permission,” Lahren said.

Lahren has been the caretaker of the site since the 1970s, yet few attempts were made to contact tribes until recently, Sarah Anzick said. She said she contacted several tribes in 2000 to determine how they might view genetic testing and that it was “very clear” at that time there was no consensus among tribes in Montana about the testing. She decided to move forward after the conversations.

Willerslev said researchers made their best attempts to get tribes involved as soon as they learned the boy was related to nearly all Native Americans. He said there was no model for a process for scientists to follow in working with tribes and that it wasn’t a given that the Anzick child was related to Native Americans when they started the studies. 

He said he and Doyle visited tribes before the Nature paper was published because of a “real desire” to make sure Montana’s tribes had a say. People were impressed that he’d come from Denmark to tell them about his studies, Willerslev said, and visiting Montana’s reservations deeply affected him.

“By taking that trip, we put everything at risk,” Willerslev said. “There was a genuine and real possibility for them to respond. It was the right thing to do and I’m proud we did it.”

The researchers performed two extractions of DNA from the Anzick child’s skeleton, Willerslev said. Each time, a bone the size of “the joint on your littlest finger” was used. During the extraction process, chemicals that ultimately dissolve the bone matter separate out the DNA, he said. 

Sarah Anzick said she personally delivered the marbled-sized samples of bone to Willerslev’s lab in Denmark. Anzick, who has also worked on the Human Genome Project, performed the DNA extractions. She said during her work on the Genome Project, she became aware that sequencing technology had improved and that she was uniquely positioned to help with the genetic analysis of the boy. She said she wanted to participate because of scientific interest, but also to make sure the boy was safeguarded.

Several tribal historic preservation officers in Montana said they were briefed on the genetic testing in the fall of 2013, when Doyle and Willerslev began visiting most of Montana’s seven reservations. Although it was disappointing they weren’t informed until so late in the process, they were glad to be involved now, several tribal historic preservation officers said. They said their priority now was to make sure the boy was put back where he was found. (See related story.)

Conrad Fisher, tribal historic preservation officer for the Northern Cheyenne, said the studies had “put Montana on the map” in archaeology and that although tribes could have been contacted earlier, the Northern Cheyenne appreciate the opportunity to participate now.

“The wheel moves real slow,” Fisher said. “We didn’t have a lot of cultural resource law 30 years ago. But maybe this is the time for (more communication) to happen. I’m really glad and really happy that all the participants have agreed that the boy should be placed back in the ground.”

Although Doyle said some tribal representatives weren’t “overjoyed” about the genetic testing, he said many also wanted access to the knowledge that scientists are providing through research of the boy’s remains. He said he personally isn’t opposed to genetic testing as long as it’s done in a respectful way, although he also noted that before federal legislation in 1990s, tribes didn’t have control over their graves. 

Tribes were seen as “subject to science not contributing partners,” Doyle said. Yet he said he sees the Anzick discoveries as part of a new era in relationships between tribes and researchers. 

“This is the time when we need to sort of seize the opportunity and change culture,” Doyle said.

Doyle visited Willerslev’s lab in Denmark last year, which he said gave him a sense of peace about how the boy’s remains were being handled. 

Willerslev, who said he’s always dreamed of working on Native American genetics, has worked on genomes of native peoples across the globe and said experiences like working with aboriginal Australians have made him sensitive to the issues inherent in handling remains of ancestors of living people. He said people with well-preserved oral histories can often reach further back into history than scientists. 

“It’s really a delicate matter and really a very important matter,” Willerslev said. “If someone came to me and said, ‘I’m sorry, Eske but you are descended from the Vikings,’ I would be pretty unhappy about that.” 

He added, “If science wants to move on really in any matter with these topics, we need to do it hand in hand with indigenous peoples.”

Lahren, who has worked on the site since the beginning of his career, has become a pessimistic observer of the academics who have been involved with the Anzick site over the years. Dozens of archaeologists and amateurs have studied or tried to study the assemblage and the remains. 

“There’s never been a complete, comprehensive study,” Lahren said. “It’s always been a rip and run, get some stuff for your resume, get your tenure type of thing.”

The Anzicks have had possession of the child since he was returned to them in 2000, they said. Lahren said he learned the bones had traveled to Arizona in the late 1990s, where they ended up after University of Montana archaeologist Dee Taylor, one of the first to study the remains, gave the bones to his son. 

He advised the Anzicks on getting the remains returned to Montana, Lahren said. Since then, Sarah Anzick, who was 2 years old when the site was discovered, said she’s kept the boy closely guarded and safe. Only the researchers from the current team have had access to the child.

“He’s not just a sample,” she said. “I feel he was discovered for a reason and he had a story to tell.”



Researchers plan to rebury Anzick child

By Natalie Storey
Enterprise Staff Writer

The remains of a 2-year-old boy discovered in a Shields Valley archeological site that is 12,600 years old will soon be reburied, according to researchers studying his remains.

Sarah Anzick, the daughter of the landowners on whose property the boy was discovered, and Shane Doyle, a member of the Crow Tribe working with Anzick Site researchers, initiated talks with tribal historical preservation officers at a Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation meeting in October to rebury the bones. 

Doyle said he hopes the remains of the boy will be put back into the ground this spring or summer, although there are many details that still need to be worked out, such as who will pay for the reburial.

“The main thing we need right now is some funding,” Doyle said. “We have the medicine man and the support from the other tribes. All the pieces are in place.”

The boy will be reburied in the bluff in the Shields Valley between the Crazy Mountains and the Bangtail Range where he was accidentally discovered more than 40 years ago. The site is marked with a diamond sign that states, “The location where it was found May 1968.”

Although Doyle and Sarah Anzick approached Montana’s Burial Preservation Board, the group responsible for dealing with Native American remains found in Montana after 1991, the board said they had no jurisdiction and could only advise the Anzick family in dealing with the child’s remains, according to a statement provided by Sheryl Olson, chief program and information officer. 

Doyle said Montana tribes are strapped for cash, but is hopeful some other funding source can be found.

Eske Willerslev, the Danish geneticist who has been studying the boy’s genome, said the researchers agreed reburying the remains was their moral obligation.

“As a scientist, I can’t say that it doesn’t hurt my heart a little bit that this is going back into the ground, but as a human being I completely understand and appreciate that these people want it reburied and that they feel strongly about it.”

From here on out, the researchers said, all archeologists working on paleolithic remains in the Americas will have to assume they are related to Native Americans. They said they hope researchers who follow will also work with tribes.

“The study shows that you must assume any remains in the Americas are Native American until it’s proven differently,” Willerslev said.

Tribal historic preservation officers in the state, most of whom say visits from Doyle in 2013 were the first time they’d been informed about what was happening at the site, say they understand that a number of issues are at play in the reburial, but still hope the boy can be returned to the ground in a respectful manner.

“I think they should be reburied,” said Emerson Bull Chief, tribal historic preservation officer for the Crow Tribe. “But it’s really hard for anyone to lay claim to it. From what they were saying, the DNA has a connection to almost every tribe in North and South America. (The remains) are over 10,000 years old. There is no way anyone can actually lay claim to it.”

Conrad Fisher, historic preservation officer for the Northern Cheyenne, said tribes in Montana have never questioned that the boy is related to them. The child found at the Anzick site has been through enough, Fisher said, and deserves to be buried.

“We know where this boy came from. He came from a tribe here in native North America and this is where he belongs,” Fisher said. “We’ve known that. We are more interested in doing the right thing. And that is having a proper burial and honoring that boy.”

Fisher also said the value of the remains to scientists and collectors could become issues in the reburial of the boy. 

“We know that this is an old specimen and for whatever reason, people still have a fascination for Native American stuff,” Fisher said. “There’s no guarantee that the reburial will safeguard the remains.”

There have been several reburials of Native American remains in Montana following the passage of national and state laws protecting burial sites. Notably, In 1994, Chief Pretty Eagle was reburied at Crow Agency. Pretty Eagle, who died in 1903, was among 60 tribal members who were removed from burial sites along the Bighorn River in the early 1900s by Bighorn County Sanitarian Dr. W. A Russell, according to the National Park Service website. Russell sold the remains to museums, some for less than $500. Pretty Eagle’s skull eventually ended up in the Museum of Natural History in New York. 

The researchers stress that science’s relationship with tribes has come a long way since then.

“I’ve always felt that they needed to be returned to the ground,” said Sarah Anzick. “It’s just the right thing to do. As a scientist, I also think everybody has a right to know who this individual is.”


Natalie Storey may be reached at nstorey@livent.net.