Danish scientist tells Eske Willerslev that, when he began working as a teacher, he hung a poster of Sitting Bull on the wall of his office. “When I had to make difficult decisions, I would look at him and think: what would Sitting Bull do in this case?”, Recalls the researcher. The indigenous chief went down in history as the winner in 1876 of the battle of Little Bighorn, in which men of different tribes annihilated the troops of the Seventh Cavalry Regiment of the United States, under the command of General Custer, whose corpse was horribly mutilated on the great plains. And Willerslev has helped the Sioux chieftain win one last battle after death: the genetic identification of a living great-grandson.
Sitting Bull was killed by Indian policemen in 1890, when he was to be arrested. A military surgeon, Horace Deeble, then took the opportunity to steal a lock of his hair and his pants, in order to keep them as a souvenir. Both pieces ended six years later in Washington at the Smithsonian Institution, which he gave them back to the alleged descendants of the indigenous leader in a solemn ceremony in 2007. One of them was Ernie LaPointe, a man born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (South Dakota) who was orphaned at age 17, he enlisted in the army At 18, he fought in the Vietnam War and returned from there with post-traumatic stress disorder that plunged him into alcoholism for nearly two decades, according to himself in a documentary in 2013. Comparing his DNA to that of Sitting Bull’s lock of hair shows that the Sioux chief was indeed his great-grandfather.
Willerslev’s team has taken 14 years to perform the analysis because they have had to invent a new technique, capable of identifying tiny fragments of ancient DNA. Sitting Bull’s hair was “extremely degraded” after a century of storage at room temperature at the Smithsonian Institution Museum in Washington. It is the first time that a family link has been established between a living person and a historical figure so distant in time and with such limited genetic information, according to Willerslev, from the University of Copenhagen.
“This method will be useful in cases in which there are scarce amounts of DNA and it is desired to establish biological relationships, for example, in forensic cases, with the remains of an unnamed corpse or for the identification of a suspect with little available DNA,” he says. Willerslev. Their study, published this Wednesday in the specialized magazine Science Advances, cites interest in historical figures such as King Richard III of England, American outlaw Jesse James, and members of the Russian Romanov dynasty.
Biologist Vanessa Villalba, an expert in ancient DNA, applauds the new work, in which she has not participated. “The complexity comes when we want to estimate degrees of kinship in two old samples with partial genetic information that is not 100% comparable, since it covers different regions of the genome,” explains Villalba, from the Institute of Evolutionary Biology, in Barcelona. “Another problem that is added when you work with old samples is that you do not know if the kinship relationship is longitudinal, that is, if they are great-grandfather-great-grandson or, in fact, they are cousins, since both imply a third degree of kinship. . In this case, that problem would not exist ”, celebrates the researcher.
The new method opens a door to connect past and present. And Ernie LaPointe wants to cross it as soon as possible. Sitting Bull’s body was buried at Fort Yates, North Dakota, but his great-grandson is convinced that his relatives opened the grave in 1953 and took his bones to a new grave, in Mobridge, South Dakota. At present, both places receive visitors. “I know that the remains that were transferred to Mobridge are those of our ancestor, but there are skeptics,” explains the great-grandson of Toro Sentado to EL PAÍS. LaPointe hopes that a new method of genetic analysis will help him find out where his great-grandfather is really buried.
The Vietnam War veteran would like the world to remember his great-grandfather as a person who “cared for the health and well-being of his people through the sacred ceremony of the Dance of the Sun, and who gave his life for them”. Danish geneticist Eske Willerslev goes further: “Sitting Bull is a symbol of bravery, intelligence and goodness – the ideal leader.”
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.