News, Culture & Society

Genealogy: Method for using ancient DNA to analyse lineages paves way for testing historical figures

A method for analysing family lineages using fragments of ancient DNA has offered the ability to test relationships between living and dead individuals for the first time.

University of Cambridge-led experts have demonstrated the technique by proving a man’s claim to being the great-grandson of the Native American leader Sitting Bull.

Also known as Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake, the man led 1,500 Lakota warriors at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, wiping out the opposing US forces led by General Custer.

The researchers were able to extract so-called autosomal DNA from a lock of Sitting Bull’s hair and match it to that from his modern-day relative, Ernie Lapointe.

Previously, the relationship between the pair had been contested — despite genealogical evidence in the form of birth and death certificates and family trees.

University of Cambridge-led experts have demonstrated the technique by proving the claim of Ernie Lapointe (pictured) to being the great-grandson of the Native American leader Sitting Bull

A method for analysing family lineages using fragments of ancient DNA has offered the ability to test relationships between living and dead individuals for the first time. University of Cambridge-led experts have demonstrated the technique by proving the claim of Ernie Lapointe (right) as the great-grandson of the Native American leader Sitting Bull (left)

AUTOSOMAL DNA 

Autosomal DNA is the name given to DNA inherited from any of the numbered, non-sex chromosomes.

It is recombined in each generation — meaning that children will receive one set of autosomal chromosomes from each parent.

Given the way they are passed down, they can be used to establish more complex family relationships than just following the male or female line, as with 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,’ Professor Willerslev explained.

‘We managed to locate sufficient amounts of autosomal DNA in Sitting Bull’s hair sample, and compare it to the DNA sample from Ernie Lapointe and other Lakota Sioux — and were delighted to find that it matched.’

Traditional approaches to genetic analysis would not have worked here, as they either look for DNA matches within the Y chromosome, which is only passed down the male line, or in the mitochondrial DNA passed down the female line.

Given this, they would never have been able to establish a link between Mr Lapointe and his famous ancestor, as he was relating to Sitting Bull via his mother’s side of the family. On top of that, these approaches are also often unreliable. 

In contrast, autosomal DNA analysis can be employed when only very limited genetic data is available, as was the case with Sitting Bull’s hair. 

The lock had been stored for more than a century at room temperature in Washington’s Smithsonian Museum before it was returned to Lapointe and his family in 2007 — leaving the hair extremely degraded.

As a result, it took the researchers 14 years to find a way of extracting useable DNA from the 2-inch-long sample. However, now the process has been established, it should be easy to apply it to other historical figured, the team explained. 

‘In principle, you could investigate whoever you want — from outlaws like Jesse James to the Russian tsar’s family, the Romanovs,’ explained Professor Willerslev.

‘If there is access to old DNA — typically extracted from bones, hair or teeth, they can be examined in the same way.’ 

Alongside analysing the relationships of historic figures, the researchers explained, their technique could also be used to to analyse modern DNA that might previously have been considered to degraded to analyse — such as in forensic investigations. 

Autosomal DNA analysis can be employed when only very limited genetic data is available, as was the case with Sitting Bull's hair (pictured). The lock had been stored for more than a century at room temperature in Washington’s Smithsonian Museum before it was returned to Lapointe and his family in 2007 — leaving the hair extremely degraded

Autosomal DNA analysis can be employed when only very limited genetic data is available, as was the case with Sitting Bull’s hair (pictured). The lock had been stored for more than a century at room temperature in Washington’s Smithsonian Museum before it was returned to Lapointe and his family in 2007 — leaving the hair extremely degraded

‘Over the years, many people have tried to question the relationship that I and my sisters have to Sitting Bull,’ said Mr Lapointe.

For Mr Lapointe, the extra proof matters, as it will support his move to relocate his great-grandfather’s remains to a more appropriate resting site.

At present, there are two official burial sites for Sitting Bull — one in Mobridge, South Dakota and the other in Fort Yates, North Dakota.

Mr Lapointe believes that his relative is buried at the former site, which he explains has no significant connection to Sitting Bull and the culture he represented. He has also expressed concerns about how the gravesite is being cared for.

Before the remains at the Mobridge site can be relocated, however, they will need to be similarly analysed 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, making it up to him who performs the analysis of the remains. 

For Mr Lapointe, the further proof of his relationship to Sitting Bull is important, as it will support his move to relocate his great-grandfather's remains to a more appropriate resting site. At present, there are two official burial sites for Sitting Bull — one in Mobridge, South Dakota (pictured) and the other in Fort Yates, North Dakota. Mr Lapointe believes that his relative is buried at the former site, which he explains has no significant connection to Sitting Bull and the culture he represented

For Mr Lapointe, the further proof of his relationship to Sitting Bull is important, as it will support his move to relocate his great-grandfather’s remains to a more appropriate resting site. At present, there are two official burial sites for Sitting Bull — one in Mobridge, South Dakota (pictured) and the other in Fort Yates, North Dakota. Mr Lapointe believes that his relative is buried at the former site, which he explains 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 almost 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 on the repatriation of museum objects.’

‘I wrote to Lapointe and explained that I specialised in the analysis of ancient DNA, and that I was an admirer of Sitting Bull, and I would consider it a great honour if I could be allowed to compare the DNA of Ernie and his sisters with the DNA of the Native American leader’s hair when it was returned to them.’

The full findings of the study were published in the journal Science Advances.

SITTING BULL (1831–1890)

Pictured: Sitting Bull in 1883

Pictured: Sitting Bull in 1883

Sitting Bull (Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake) was a Hunkpapa Lakota leader and holy man who led his people in resistance against the policies of the US Government.

He is best known for leading 1,500 Lakota warriors at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 — during which he wiped out the opposing US forces led by General Custer. 

Sitting Bull was shot to death by Indian Agency police on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in 1890 during an attempt to arrest him. 

US authorities had feared he would lend support to the Ghost Dance, a religious movement which promised to being peace, prosperity and unity to Native American peoples and bring and end to American westward expansion.

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk