Science & Technology

‘Autosomal DNA’ used to confirm living descendant of Sitting Bull

Unique identification technique not used till now is based on non-gender-specific DNA

By DTE Staff
Published: Friday 29 October 2021
Sitting Bull. Photo: @NPSusa / Twitter
Sitting Bull. Photo: @NPSusa / Twitter Sitting Bull. Photo: @NPSusa / Twitter

A technique based on ‘autosomal DNA’ has been used for the first time to identify the great-grandson and closest living relative of Sitting Bull, a prominent 19th century Native American leader.

The technique searches for ‘autosomal DNA’ in the genetic fragments extracted from a body sample, according to a press statement.

“Since we inherit half of our autosomal DNA from our father and half from our mother, this means genetic matches can be checked irrespective of whether an ancestor is on the father or mother’s side of the family,” the statement added.

Usually, DNA techniques such as mitochondrial DNA, which means DNA passed from the mother or Y chromosome DNA passed down the male line, have been used in genetic searches.

A team of scientists led by Eske Willerslev of the University of Cambridge and Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre worked for 14 years to find a way of extracting useable DNA from a 5-6 cm piece of Sitting Bull’s hair.

The hair, from the chief’s scalp lock, was extremely degraded. It had been stored for over a century at room temperature in Washington, DC’s Smithsonian Museum.

“Autosomal DNA is our non-gender-specific DNA. 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,” Willerslev said.

The autosomal DNA technique can be used even when very limited genetic data are available, like in this case. Experts have expressed hope that it could be used in the future to identify living descendants of other long-dead historical figures.

“In principle, you could investigate whoever you want — from outlaws like Jesse James to the Russian tsar’s family, the Romanovs. If there is access to old DNA — typically extracted from bones, hair or teeth, they can be examined in the same way,” Willerslev said.

The technique could also be used to answer important questions based on old human DNA that might previously have been considered too degraded to analyse — for example in forensic investigations, according to the statement.

Sitting Bull is most famous for his victory over US General George Armstrong Custer in the Battle of the Little Bighorn river in 1876. Five companies of the US Army were completely wiped out in the battle, considered widely to be the most significant Native American military victory in US history.

Sitting Bull, who hailed from the Lakota branch of the Great Sioux Nation or Oceti Sakowin, was killed in 1890 by ‘Indian Police’, acting on behalf of the US government.

The study was published October 27, 2021 in the journal Science Advances. The research was funded by the Danish National Research Foundation.

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