New DNA analysis supports ancient roots of an unrecognized tribe in California

In “The Handbook of the Californian IndiansPublished in 1925, anthropologist Alfred Cropper declared that the Ohlone people were “extinct as far as all practical purposes are concerned”, Noting that “a few scattered individuals are alive.”

Although the anthropologist didn’t back down from his declaration of extinction until the 1950s, Charlene Najma, chief of the still-from-extinct Muwekma Ohlone tribe, said, “The damage has been done.”

The Muwekma Ohlone Tribe is one of the descended communities of the Ohlone people, who originally lived on 4.3 million acres in the Bay Area. For decades, the moeka sought to regain the federally recognized status, which they had lost in the 1920s. Linguists and archaeologists have suggested that the Ohlone people migrated there 1,500 to 1,000 years ago. But the tribe has long asserted that its presence in the region goes back even further.

A study published in March in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provided new genomic evidence that Muwekma’s connection to the Bay region dates back at least 2,000 years. Working alongside the Muwekma Ohlone tribe, researchers from several universities extracted DNA from 12 ancient people buried in the area nearly 2,000 years ago and found biological continuity with DNA collected from modern tribe members.

“The validation, at last,” said Monica Arellano, vice-president of the tribe and author of the paper. “This adds to all the information we’ve put out there, years of compiling and doing research to establish our identity.”

Alyssa Bader, an anthropologist at the University of Colorado Boulder who was not involved in the research, praised how the paper included representatives of the tribe as co-authors and triggered community participation. “It is recognized as a really essential part of the scientific research method and not something buried in supplementary information,” said Dr. Bader, adding, “These are all exciting directions for genomic research that includes genetic research on indigenous and ancestral communities.”

In 2014, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission proposed a construction project on an archaeological site that would likely house human burials. The commission reached the Muwekma Ohlone, most likely descendants of the Elders.

The tribe brought in the Far West Anthropology Research Group, a cultural resource consultancy, to conduct excavations at the site, which they named Síi Túupentak (place of the Water Round House site). Síi Túupentak, located near the confluence of Alameda Creek and Arroyo de la Laguna, was a fertile site. Brian Bird, an archaeologist in the Far West, said that the villagers fished in the streams and ran the nearby forests and pastures with controlled burning.

The Far West has also excavated another ancient site nearby, called Rummey Ta Kuččuwiš Tiprectak (Lake Site Stream Place), which has been inhabited for 2,500 years.

Tribesmen led excavations of burials, which was an emotionally difficult task. “It’s a pity that we have to move them,” said Ms. Arellano. “But if anyone has to do this, we take that responsibility very seriously and with the greatest care and love possible.” The burials were likely intended for people of high proportions, Arellano said, as many were buried with precious shells, such as abalone necklaces.

Sometimes when burials were discovered, prospectors gathered under a large tree and talked during the process to ensure everyone was heard, according to Dr. Bird. “Trust has often been something that is not the first step these days for archeology and local communities,” he said.

Alan Leventhal, a tribe archaeologist and honorary lecturer at San Jose State University, said the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe Council wanted to see if burials at the sites could help establish the ancient presence of their peoples in the Bay Area.

Rayban Mallehy, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Noah Rosenberg, a population geneticist at Stanford University, joined the project to lead the analysis of ancient DNA. The researchers submitted all additional tests to the Clan Council for approval. Dr. Baird said the council gave researchers the green light to study dental plaque for signs of inhalation such as tobacco, as well as to conduct tests to determine the sex of buried children. “We were able to identify some specimens from ancestors who had really good preservation,” said Dr. Malhi.

After extracting DNA at the two sites from 12 individuals who lived several hundred to 1,900 years ago, the researchers compared their genomes to publicly available genetic information about other indigenous communities in the Americas and ancient individuals around the world. The oldest and most recent burials share distinct sets of genetic variants, indicating that they were from related groups.

The analysis identified a common component of ancestry that connects people in the two ancient sites with modern-day members of the Mouima. This strain can be found in other modern societies, but it is present in a much higher proportion in the mocha.

“It was surprising to find this level of continuity given the many upheavals that the Ohlone people experienced during the Spanish occupation, such as forced deportations and mixing with other tribes forcibly displaced by the Spanish,” said Dr. Rosenberg.

In keeping with Indigenous data sovereignty principles, Muwekma will review requests for genomic data collected from sites and tribal members, while retaining authority over how the data is used. “It reduces the potential harm to communities,” said Dr. Bader. “this is important.”

For members of the Muwekma Ohlone tribe, these genetic findings represent a new series of evidence that aligns with their tribe’s oral history. “This is very much our story, we have to prove who we are,” Ms Arellano said. “We’ve known who we are, we know who we are, and we’re still here.”

The Moekma could trace their ancestors through several expeditions in the Bay Area and resided in small settlements called Rancherias until the early 1900s, Mr. Leventhal said.

The tribe was once federally recognized under a different name, Verona Band in Alameda County. But he lost recognition of it after 1927, when a Sacramento superintendent decided that the Muekma and more than 100 other tribal divisions needed no land, effectively ending the tribe’s formal federal recognition, Leventhal said. He added, “The tribe has not been terminated by any measure by Congress.”

Muwekma hopes the new study and any additional research will strengthen their case for federal recognition. “The cost of living is driving us out,” said Ms. Najma, the chief of the tribe. “Recognition means that we will be able to have a land base and have a community village and keep our people on our lands in their rightful place.”

Síi Túupentak will soon open an interpretive center featuring some artifacts from the excavation, informative signs about the history of the tribal language and a replica of an eagle, referring to the Muwekma creation story.

Ms Arellano said that ancient people who were once buried in Seyi Tubintak will be reburied elsewhere, as close as possible to their original graves.

“This was supposed to be their final resting place,” she said. “They were never meant to be moved.”

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