Sign up for CNN’s Wonder Theory science newsletter. Explore the universe with news on fascinating discoveries, scientific advancements and more.
The great-grandson of the legendary Lakota Sioux Chief Sitting Bull has been confirmed as his closest living relative using an innovative new DNA technique applied to hair taken from the Native American leader’s scalp lock.
People had tried to question Ernie LaPointe’s relationship with Sitting Bull, who was also known as Tatanka-Iyotanka, LaPointe said in a news release. LaPointe wanted to have their relationship confirmed via genetic analysis to put an end to the speculation and allow the final resting place of Sitting Bull’s remains to be settled.
The analysis was done using autosomal DNA extracted from genetic fragments in the hair lock, which was in poor condition after being stored for more than a century at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington. It was returned to LaPointe and his sisters in 2007.
Other techniques rely on mitochondrial DNA, which can only trace the female line, or the Y-chromosome in nuclear DNA, which traces the male line. The technique using nuclear DNA couldn’t be used because Sitting Bull only had daughters. These types of DNA can also be hard to extract from damaged remains.
“To our knowledge, this is the first published example of a familial relationship between contemporary and a historical individual that has been confirmed using such limited amounts of ancient DNA across such distant relatives,” according to the study that published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.
It took the scientists 14 years to find a way of extracting usable DNA from a piece of Sitting Bull’s hair that was 5 to 6 centimeters (2 inches) long. The technique searches for autosomal DNA in genetic fragments in the body sample. Because we inherit half our autosomal DNA from our father and half from our mother, this means genetic matches can be checked no matter whether the relative is on the father’s or mother’s side of the family, the news release said.
Study author Eske Willerslev, a professor at the University of Cambridge’s department of zoology and the Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre in Denmark, said Sitting Bull had long been a hero to him.
“I almost choked on my coffee when I read in a magazine in 2007 that the Smithsonian Museum had decided to return Sitting Bull’s hair to Ernie Lapointe and his three sisters,” he said in the news release.
“I wrote to Lapointe and explained that I specialized in the analysis of ancient DNA, and that I was an admirer of Sitting Bull, and I would consider it a great honor 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 researchers said the study opens the possibility for broadening genealogical research, even when only minor fragments of ancient genetic material are available.
Sitting Bull is best known for his victory over then-US Army Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer in the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn. Fourteen years after this battle, he was shot and killed while he was being arrested, the study said.
LaPointe said the confirmation that he is Sitting Bull’s great-grandson will allow him to settle questions over the Sioux chief’s burial site. People can pay their respects to Sitting Bull at two official gravesites, one at Fort Yates, North Dakota, and one at Mobridge, South Dakota. LaPointe believes his bones lie at Mobridge, a place that has no significant connection to Sitting Bull.
With DNA evidence to back up his status, Lapointe, according to the news release, now hopes to rebury the great Native American leader’s bones in a more appropriate location.