Genealogy: Method of using ancient DNA to analyze lineages paves the way for testing historical figures
Scientists have confirmed that a man who previously claimed to be Sitting Bull’s great-grandson is indeed his living descendant after analyzing DNA fragments from the legendary Native American chief’s hair.
Experts led by the University of Cambridge have shown that the technique known as “autosomal DNA” has shown that Ernie Lapointe is indeed the great-grandson of the Native American leader.
Also known as Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake, Sitting Bull led 1,500 Lakota warriors into the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, wiping out the hostile American forces led by General Custer.
The researchers were able to extract supposedly autosomal DNA from a lock of Sitting Bull’s hair and match it with that of his modern-day relative, Ernie Lapointe.
Previously, the relationship between the couple was contentious – despite genealogical evidence in the form of birth and death certificates and family trees.
It is the first time that the technique offers the possibility to test relationships between living and dead individuals.
A method of analyzing family lines using fragments of ancient DNA has provided the first opportunity to test relationships between living and dead individuals. Experts led by the University of Cambridge have demonstrated the technique by proving the claim of Ernie Lapointe (right) as the great-grandson of Native American leader Sitting Bull (left).
Autosomal DNA is the name given to DNA inherited from one of the numbered, non-sex chromosomes.
It is recombined in each generation – meaning that children receive one set of autosomal chromosomes from each parent.
Given the way they are passed on, they can be used to create more complex family relationships than just following the male or female line, as in traditional genetic analyses.
The research was conducted by evolutionary geneticist Eske Willerslev of the University of Cambridge and his colleagues.
‘Autosomal DNA is our non-gender specific DNA’, explains Professor Willerslev.
“We were able to locate enough autosomal DNA in Sitting Bull’s hair sample and compare it to the DNA sample from Ernie Lapointe and other Lakota Sioux — and we were delighted to find it matched.”
Traditional approaches to genetic analysis wouldn’t have worked here, because they either look for DNA matches within the Y chromosome, which is only passed down the male line, or in the mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down the female line.
Given this, they could never have made a connection between Mr. Lapointe and his famous ancestor, as he had contact with Sitting Bull through his mother’s side of the family. Moreover, these approaches are often also unreliable.
In contrast, autosomal DNA analysis can be applied when only very limited genetic data is available, as was the case with Sitting Bull’s hair.
The hair had been stored at room temperature at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington for over a century before being returned to Lapointe and his family in 2007, leaving the hair extremely damaged.
As a result, it took the researchers 14 years to find a way to extract useful DNA from the 2-inch-long sample. However, now that the process has been established, it should be easy to apply it to other historical figures, the team explained.
“Basically you can research whoever you want – from bandits like Jesse James to the family of the Russian tsar, the Romanovs,” Professor Willerslev explained.
“If there is access to ancient DNA – usually extracted from bones, hair or teeth – they can be examined in the same way.”
In addition to analyzing the relationships of historical figures, the researchers explained, their technique could also be used to analyze modern DNA previously thought to be degraded to analyze — such as in forensics.
Autosomal DNA analysis can be applied when only very limited genetic data is available, as was the case with Sitting Bull’s hair (pictured). The hair had been stored at room temperature in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington for over a century before being returned to Lapointe and his family in 2007 – leaving the hair extremely damaged.
“Over the years, many people have sought to question the relationship that I and my sisters have with Sitting Bull,” said Mr. Lapointe.
For Mr. Lapointe, the additional evidence is important as it will support his move to move his great-grandfather’s remains to a more suitable resting place.
Currently, there are two official cemeteries for Sitting Bull – one in Mobridge, South Dakota and the other in Fort Yates, North Dakota.
Mr. Lapointe believes his relative is buried at the former site, which he believes has no significant connection to Sitting Bull and the culture he represented. He has also expressed concern about the way the grave is being cared for.
Before the remains can be moved at the Mobridge site, however, they must be similarly analyzed to confirm that – like the lock of hair – they are definitely the remains of the great Lakota leader.
In accordance with US law, Mr. Lapointe owns the right to Sitting Bull’s genetic data, and it is up to him to conduct the analysis of the remains.
For Mr. Lapointe, further evidence of his relationship with Sitting Bull is important, as it will support his move to move his great-grandfather’s remains to a more suitable resting place. Currently, there are two official cemeteries for Sitting Bull – one in Mobridge, South Dakota (pictured) and the other in Fort Yates, North Dakota. Mr Lapointe believes his relative is buried at the former site, which he believes has no significant connection to Sitting Bull and the culture he represented
“Sitting Bull has always been my hero, ever since I was a boy. I admire his courage and his drive,” Professor Willerslev continued.
“That’s why I nearly choked on my coffee when I read in 2007 that the Smithsonian had decided to return Sitting Bull’s hair to Ernie Lapointe and his three sisters, in accordance with new US legislation governing the repatriation of museum objects.”
“I wrote to Lapointe explaining that I specialized in the analysis of ancient DNA, and that I was an admirer of Sitting Bull, and I would consider it a great honor if I could compare the DNA of Ernie and his sisters with the DNA from the Indian chief’s hair when it was returned to them.”
The study’s full findings were published in the journal scientific progress.
SITTING BULL (1831-1890)
Pictured: Seated Bull in 1883
Sitting Bull (Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake) was a leader of Hunkpapa Lakota and a holy man who led his people in defiance of US government policies.
He is best known for leading 1,500 Lakota warriors in the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 – in which he wiped out the hostile American forces led by General Custer.
Sitting Bull was shot dead in 1890 by Indian Agency police on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation while attempting to arrest him.
The US authorities feared that he would support the Ghost Dance, a religious movement that promised to bring peace, prosperity and unity to the Native American peoples and end American expansion westward.