WSU anthropologist digs into ancient DNA

HEATHER MORSE | Evergreen reporter

WSU molecular anthropologist Brian Kemp is digging deep into the DNA of a pre-historic Native American to find links between the genetics of the earliest humans and modern humans of America.

Kemp, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology, has conducted projects that help with Native American pre-history. He studies the entrance of humans into the Americas and how they moved around once they arrived.

Some of his research is forensic-based, and all of the DNA Kemp and his colleagues study are degraded.

“We’ve optimized methods for working with degraded DNA,” Kemp said.

They recently made use of those methods to obtain DNA from a skeleton that is about 12,000 to 13,000 years-old, he said. Kemp was the first to look at the DNA.

Scuba divers found the ancient skeleton in an underwater cave in Mexico, called Hoyo Negro, Kemp said. The skeleton, named Naia, was a young woman who fell to her death in the pit.

Kemp and his team focused on determining Naia’s time of death by looking at the decay of certain radioactive elements in the skeleton.

Kemp examined the mitochondrial DNA of one of Naia’s molars. He looked at mitochondrial DNA because it is more abundant than chromosomal DNA.

After extracting and purifying the molar, Kemp used standard molecular biology techniques to analyze the sample.

This link supports their hypothesis that the first Americans are genetically related to present Americans, he added.

“The mitochondrial DNA linked her to modern Native American populations,” Kemp said.

The next step in the study is to sequence the entire genome of the skeleton. Mitochondrial DNA only provides information about direct maternal genealogy, so this next step will give them a better estimation of the other ancestors of Naia, Kemp said.

“The nuclear DNA can tell us about all of them potentially,” Kemp said.

He has studied ancient DNA for over 10 years. Kemp said his goal for the future is to continue to learn things we couldn’t know without DNA.

He carried out the analysis at WSU with colleagues from various states.

His colleague Deborah Bolnick from The University of Texas at Austin confirmed the DNA results.

The archeologist Jim Chatters is the lead scientist of the Hoyo Negro Project, the DNA study of Naia, he said in an email.

Chatters asked Kemp to perform the DNA study.

“I was impressed by his ability to extract DNA successfully from small amounts of poorly preserved bone and we knew the Hoyo Negro bone had little, if any, protein left, so it fit that category,” Chatters said.

Kemp and his colleagues are also studying practices involving animals, such as turkey domestication, he said.

“We’re looking a lot at ancient salmon fishing practices,” Kemp said.

Kemp holds a doctorate in anthropology at the University of California, Davis and has studied molecular anthropology since he was an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan.