Geneticists have found that DNA retrieved from skeletal remains at two San Francisco Bay Area, California archaeological sites matches genetic samples taken from modern-day members of the Muwekma Ohlone tribe. The ancient DNA was collected from the skeletons of 12 individuals who lived in the Bay Area region at different times over the past 2,000 years, and its link to the present-day Muwekma Ohlone people reveals the tribe’s true historical connection to the land where they’ve long resided.
The research just published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) may help a displaced Native American group recover their lost status:
“The study reaffirms the Muwekma Ohlone’s deep-time ties to the area, providing evidence that disagrees with linguistic and archaeological reconstructions positing that the Ohlone are late migrants to the region,” the PNAC paper authors wrote.
Despite the fact that approximately 500 Muwekma Ohlone people currently reside in and around San Francisco, they are currently not recognized as a distinct tribe by the United States federal government. This is a situation they would like to change, and this new genetic study may very well help them do it.
We Are Muwekma Ohlone, Welcome To Our Land, Where We Are Born! Mural by Alfonso Salazar in Downtown San Jose, California (2021) (Katherine D. Harris / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Who Were (Are) the Muwekma Ohlone People?
The Muwekma Ohlone people once occupied 4.3 million acres (1.74 million hectares) of land in northern California. Like most Native American groups, however, their population declined dramatically during the 19th century , as they were slowly displaced by American settlers from the east.
In 1927 the Muwekma Ohlone were removed from the United States government’s official register of federally recognized tribes. This change was motivated by a pronouncement from anthropologist A.L. Kroeger, who, following a 1925 survey, declared the Muwekma Ohlone people “extinct for all practical purposes.” The federal government took control of all former Muwekma Ohlone land following the removal, and also declared any remaining members of the tribe ineligible for benefits that would normally be open to Native American peoples.
The Muwekma Ohlone people were baffled by this decision at the time and remain baffled to this day. They’ve been petitioning since the 1980s to be returned to the official register of tribes, and have even taken the federal government to court to try to make it happen. But so far the Bureau of Indian Affairs has refused to act, leaving the Muwekma Ohlone nation in limbo.
The living members of the tribe are hopeful that the new genetic study published in PNAC will strengthen their case for recognition and force the government to respond. This was their hope from the beginning, when excavations in Muwekma Ohlone ancestral homes first began.
Ohlone dancers drawn by Wilhelm Gottlieb Tilesius von Tilenau. ( Public Domain )
Muwekma Ohlone Culture Verified
In 2014, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission announced its plans to build an educational facility in a location where Native Americans would have previously lived. By law, exploratory archaeological surveys would have to be conducted before construction started, to ensure that Native American burial sites would not be disturbed.
When the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe were contacted about the upcoming excavations, they asked archaeologists to dig at two sites they knew had a long history of occupation by their people. These were known as Síi Túupentak (Place of the Water Round House Site) and Rummey Ta Kuččuwiš Tiprectak (Place of the Stream of the Lagoon Site).
This recommendation by the Muwekma Ohlone proved to be a good one. Skeletal remains were recovered at both locations, and the genetic researchers involved in this study were able to extract genetic samples from 12 individuals in total. Dating procedures showed the skeletons belonged to people who’d died between 300 and 1,900 years ago, with various time periods within that range being represented.
After decoding the DNA, the researchers compared their data to genetic results recently obtained from eight members of the Muwekma Ohlone tribe. They also compared their findings to results collected from many other Native American groups both living and dead, to see if there might be other genetic relationships that could be identified.
To the delight of the Muwekma Ohlone, the final analysis showed a close genetic link between them and these long-deceased individuals, clearly proving an ancestral connection. This discovery revealed that the Muwekma Ohlone had been occupying land in the San Francisco Bay Area for a very long time, a vital fact that should help support their claim that they deserve to be recognized as an independent people native to the region.
“It was surprising to find this level of continuity, given the many disruptions the Ohlone people experienced during Spanish occupation , such as forced relocations and admixture with other tribes forcibly displaced by the Spanish,” study author Noah Rosenberg, a population geneticist at Stanford, told the New York Times .
But it seems the tribe hung on to their identity and their chosen patch of earth through even the harshest times, demonstrating their solidarity and timeless determination to retain possession of their traditional homelands.
A Model Study to Explore Critical Historical and Contemporary Problems
What ultimately emerged during this years-long project was a close collaboration between the Muwekma Ohlone people and archaeologists, anthropologists, and geneticists from Stanford University, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and a consulting firm known as the Far Western Anthropological Research Group.
Muwekma Ohlone representatives were there at every stage of the archaeological-and-genetic research study, the authors of the PNAS paper wrote. They were responsible for the “initiative to pursue the project” and deeply involved in “the selection of research questions, in archaeological excavation and ancient genomics involving sites in their historical lands, and in present-day genomic analysis with current tribal members.”
“The questions posed were developed together with the tribe, based on their understanding about oral histories and their own records,” Rosenberg explained. “Their ancestors had been in these locations in the East Bay for a very long time.”
Rosenberg hopes this innovative study will demonstrate how much can be accomplished when archaeologists, genetic researchers, and Native American tribes cooperate to explore vitally important scientific and historical issues. All three parties have an interest in learning more about the past, which in some instances can bring clarity to modern points of disagreement or contention.
Top image: Portrait heads of Indians of California by Louis Choris Source: Public Domain
By Nathan Falde