PALMDALE –Human bones turned up by earthmovers grading for an Antelope Valley housing development have produced a DNA link between living Native Americans and an ancestor who died some 800 to 1,000 years ago.
It’s been about 15 years since DNA matching was undertaken on remains found in ancient burial sites, but scientists say the Palmdale discovery is unusual to unprecedented.
Members of the San Fernando Band of Mission Indians, made up of three different groups, hope the find will bolster their claims to federal recognition as a sovereign nation. Seven different criteria must be met before that goal can be achieved.
Besides the ancestral link, the dig in Palmdale has uncovered other new information about the Vanyumes, a Mojave Desert group who, with the Fernandeno and the Tataviam, make up the mission band. The tribe hopes to one day build a cultural center in Santa Clarita, Yocum said.
For scientists, the main attraction is the DNA discovery.
"It is very significant for native people to find the kind of link that can be shown through that kind of scientific practice," said Dorothy Lippert, a case officer with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. "To have an absolute link like mitochondrial DNA is certainly more rare."
Anthropologist John Johnson, an expert on California tribes and curator for the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, said the discovery is unprecedented.
"There’s nothing like this particular DNA sequence recorded among American Indians or worldwide," Johnson said. "It’s quite remarkable that exactly the same (genetic pattern) has been discovered in prehistoric burials."
Besides providing a link between modern-day tribal members and an ancestor, the find on the outskirts of Palmdale, where a 5,000-home development is planned, provides insights into trading patterns for Mojave Desert Indians and sharpens the hazy picture of how they lived.
The remains of six members of the Vanyume group were exhumed from the burial ground starting in July 2004. DNA extracted from the tooth of one individual was found to be a perfect match with the DNA of several members of the San Fernando Band of Mission Indians, Johnson said.
Donna Yocum was one member of the Vanyume whose DNA matched the ancient individual’s. She has also served as a tribal monitor at other Antelope Valley sites, working alongside earthmoving equipment watching for bones or artifacts to be unearthed.
"It’s so awesome to know you go through the years of uncovering "unfortunately "human remains on an excavation," she said. "You wonder if you’re related to any of these people. To know that is your direct blood relative is incomprehensible."
Johnson, who has been curator of the Santa Barbara museum since 1986, said lineage to the present-day descendants is unique, and the test scientifically establishes a link between the earlier people who lived in the area and the tribe today.
The test confirming Yocum’s relationship to her exhumed ancestor was a mitochondrial DNA test performed in March 2005.
Lippert, who is a member of the Choctaw tribe and works in the Smithsonian’s repatriation office, said cultural patterns and shared language are often the only tools available to specialists who resurrect the connection between distant tribe members and their modern relatives.
The Vanyume, sometimes called the Serrano, are one of three groups that make up the San Fernando Band of Mission Indians. Each tribe can be identified by distinctive languages.
The Fernandeno, or Tongva, of the San Fernando Valley spoke Fernandino. Tatavium was spoken by the group that occupied the Santa Clarita Valley westward to Piru and northward to Agua Dulce. Vanyume, a dialect of the Serrano language, was spoken by the people who occupied the western Mojave Desert.
Under state law, the remains of the six individuals found in Palmdale will be respectfully reburied by the San Fernando tribe.
The exact age of the find cannot be fixed until radio carbon dating is performed, but preliminary findings suggest the grave was dug between 800 and 1,000 years ago. The sex of the Native American whose DNA was analyzed has not been determined, but the individual was probably between 20 and 35 years old, said Phillip Walker, the physical anthropologist who examined the remains.
Males and females were found buried on the Palmdale site. The remains of a child younger than 1 were also found, he said.
John Valenzuela, chairman of the San Fernando Band of Mission Indians, has asked scientists to test all of the remains. The results will be compared with modern-day California Indian descendants.
John Romani, of Compas Rose Archaeological Inc., a Van Nuys-based subcontractor on the site, praised Valenzuela for the decision to extract the DNA, a choice that is not common, he said.
A number of experts are pooling their resources to analyze the data, but the final results are some time off.
DNA Drawn from Tooth
Mitochondria are chemical-energy producing structures outside the nucleus of cells. Mitochondrial DNA is extracted from bones, where it may retain its integrity for ages. Scientists have found this type of DNA to be an ideal tool for intergenerational analysis. The sample from the Palmdale burial site was taken from a tooth.
Mitochondrial DNA research has been conducted for about 15 years.
This type of DNA is transmitted from a mother to her children. It is only passed on to future generations by females "none is passed along from the father, although males possess it.
Anthropologists who wield the DNA tool can work backward to trace the source of a modern-day genetic inheritance.
The Trace Genetics Inc. lab in Richmond, Calif. analyzed the sample from the dig. Its standard practice of confirming ancient results twice yielded a match with a DNA sample in a database that holds deposits from present-day tribe members.
"It doesn’t mean (Yocum) is the only descendent, but (she is) the only descendent in the database with a match," said Ripan Malhi, chief executive officer of Trace Genetics.
Malhi confirmed the discovery is the first time scientists have found a tribal lineage associated with an ancient individual and a modern one. He said about 60 percent of American Indian lineages are shared among all Native Americans.
"All Native Americans are descendants of the founding population," he said. Over generations, they have developed sublineages that have become specific to certain regions.
Mission Indians Band Chairman Valenzuela received the news of the genetic match several weeks ago, before Yocum, but quickly relayed it to her. Yocum called Johnson, gripping the printout of test results in her hands. The two compared the findings with her DNA sequence stored in a database Johnson maintains.
For Yocum, who serves as secretary for the tribe’s board of directors, the moment was bittersweet.
"This discovery is emotional for us," she said, her eyes brimming with tears. "It is traumatic. We do not like to see remains disturbed. It will probably be extremely emotional when we repatriate (the remains).
"It is an unfortunate part of progress that today’s society requires constant development," the soft-spoken woman said. "To have to watch them be removed piece by piece, that is disturbing."
She pulled back from painful memory.
"We also realize the time that we live in," she said. "Those things are only important to us."
While the DNA linkage is getting top billing, it is backed by a supporting cast of discoveries.
The Indian village was presumed to be a seasonal site, a juniper berry processing area, but through excavation was found to be a permanent village with six individuals interred close together. The burials were found in the summer of 2004.
Archaeologists wielding shovels, trowels and shaker screens found hearths, cooking areas and places to eat, sleep and play. They do not yet know how many people lived there.
"It’s a very significant find," said Romani, a principal of Compass Rose Archaeological Inc. The firm subcontracted work on the site from Venice-based ArchaeoPaleo Resource Management Inc.
"I’ve never been involved in (my) 35 years with a direct descendant of the occupants linked with DNA," he said. Ritual items were found in the burial plot. More than 1,000 cut shell beads "which may have been strung in sashes "were found buried with one individual. "He was possibly a chief, some very important shaman," Romani said.
The beads may date back to about 800 or 1,000 years ago, Romani said. He cannot be certain until carbon dating is completed. The beads originated with the Chumash and Gabrielino tribes who lived along the Santa Barbara Channel coast.
Ornaments were crafted from abalone, mussel and clam shells. Romani said the shellfish remains would not have been imported for food. The items were traded as far east as the Rio Grande River in New Mexico. The site could have been a stop along the trade network, he said.
Romani said the discoveries shed light on the tribe’s relations with other tribes. "We know they had a trade network up the coast, and with interior, and possibly Colorado River (tribes), along the Coso Range (in the desert interior of California)," he said. "We know because of shell beads and shellfish remains."
Pieces of obsidian "a black volcanic glass "were chipped into finished and rough arrowheads and knives. The tools were traded with coastal tribes. The Coso Mountains were one of the few sources of obsidian in California, Romani said.
His company is working on nearby sites that appear to involve tribes who lived during a similar era as the Vanyume. Romani said he is looking forward to comparing all the findings.
The developer of the housing project has paid for all of the special studies being done, as well as the DNA testing, Romani said.
The former Vanyume village is now bordered by earth-toned stucco homes lined up in tidy rows in planned developments. Indian artifacts and remains poked through the dirt in July 2004 as Empire Land LLC began to level the land to build its Anaverde community. When the remains were found, the tribe was called in.
A state law, Senate Bill 18, that took effect March 1 requires municipalities to consult with local tribes to preserve cultural areas or reduce impacts from development. The bill encourages property owners to voluntarily preserve cultural sites. The measure also requires cities and counties to provide to tribes inscribed on the Native American Heritage Commission’s list "tribes whose traditional lands are located within the civic jurisdiction "copies of development plans.
The site of the Vanyume village is earmarked for a 5,200-home development with elementary schools, trails, 170 acres of parks and 470 acres of open space. Some changes to the planned development, including a re-routed road, have been made due to the archeological find.
"We have a great respect for their ancestors and we try to balance that with our needs for the development of the site," said Ross Pistone, Empire’s division president for the Antelope Valley.
Injuries Tell a Story
Anthropology professor Walker, who studies human skeleton remains and examined the remains recovered from the site, says there’s much to be learned from the discovery. He expects the find to help researchers understand how groups moved in and out of the area over time.
"This kind of research will allow us to understand the chronology of prehistoric population movements in Southern California," said Walker, past president of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists and professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. "It’s the first time I’m aware of in this area we have gotten DNA evidence of ancestral affinities for people living in the past."
Walker decided which remains should be tested and he chose the genetics testing lab. The ancient DNA sample was removed from the tooth’s root and from a chamber inside the tooth. Walker said the mitochondrial DNA is a "pretty tough molecule" "it has been retrieved from Neanderthal remains that are 30,000 to 40,000 years old. He was struck by injuries suffered by one of the deceased tribe members. The person had arm injuries, which probably occurred during childhood, he said.
"The shoulder blade was broken. Also the wrist," he said. "The arm actually grew longer than the other arm because of the trauma. I’ve never seen those kinds of injuries before."
Walker’s study of traumatic injuries offers him a peek into the day-to-day life of the earlier inhabitants, into their health and the living conditions they faced.
"The injury occurred when the person was a young child," he said. "In effect, (the individual) probably had problems (moving) the wrist and probably had arthritis of the wrist as a result."
State law spells out what happens when overturned soil or erosion uncovers human bones. The coroner gets the first call and decides if the remains are likely from long-ago tribes. If so, the coroner alerts the Native American Heritage Commission in Sacramento.
The commission appoints a most likely descendent, a person whose genealogical record indicates he or she is likely descended from the tribe that lived in the area. Tribe members enlist a genealogist to document the family tree, which illustrates the connection to their ancestors.
The most likely descendent makes recommendations to the property owner about how the remains should be handled. However, the landowner can refuse the recommendation and is not required to allow the most likely descendent on the property.
A team made up of the most likely descendent, an archaeologist and the property owner ultimately formulates a plan for handling the remains.
The commission generally prefers that discoveries remain where they are found, but only if they can be protected, said Rob Wood, environmental specialist for the Southern California region. The landowner is required to rebury the remains in a place where they will not be further disturbed.
Valenzuela is designated as the most likely descendent for the Palmdale site, but he enlisted the help of others in deciding what to do.
"I got the elders council to go on the site and make the decision," Valenzuela said. They conducted a ceremony there. The remains will be respectfully reburied. Empire has cooperated with the tribe’s wishes, Valenzuela said.
He said the artifacts found in this village and at others need to be pulled from dark storage cupboards and put on display so people can learn about the daily life of the early dwellers who hunted game and gathered seeds and pods to sustain them. The tribe hopes to one day build a cultural center in Santa Clarita, Yocum said.
The Indians lived in the valley long before the Holiday Inn and Best Western offered shelter to travelers, before the stitch of power poles dotted ridgelines, before the asphalt ribbon of Highway 14 paved the route between the ancient tribe and their kin.
"We could tell how they lived, ate, the games they played, how they hunted," Valenzuela said.