Sequencing the Genome of Sitting Bull and Other Famous People

ScienceNews reports that researchers led by Eske Willerslev at the University of Copenhagen are attempting to sequence the genome of legendary Native American “Sitting Bull” (see “Genome of a Chief”).

Earlier this year (2010), Eske Willersleve announced the successful sequencing of approximately 80% of the genome of “Inuk,” a man from Greenland who left behind a few small fragments of bone and four hairs frozen in permafrost when he died about 4,000 years ago (see “Long-Locked Genome of Ancient Man Sequenced”).  Using these ancient DNA sequencing techniques, Willersleve’s group is analyzing DNA from other samples.

One of these samples is a lock of hair from Sitting Bull.

Sitting Bull (c. 1831 – Dec. 15, 1890) was a Hunkpapa Lokota Sioux born in South Dakota.  Sitting Bull played an important role in the June 25, 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, and later toured as a performer in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show.

It is not clear from the ScienceNow article, but the lock of hair being used for the analysis could be the same lock of hair that was repatriated to Ernie LaPointe, the great-grandson of Sitting Bull, in December 2007 (see “Assessment of a Lock of Hair and Leggings Attributed to Sitting Bull, a Hunkpapa Sioux, in the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution”).  Ernie LaPointe is believed to be the closest lineal descendant of Sitting Bull, and one of his few remaining descendants (see “Smithsonian traces Sitting Bull’s descendants”).  The lock of hair was acquired from Sitting Bull’s body upon his death in 1890 by U.S. Army surgeon Dr. Horace M. Deeble, and when Deeble died in 1896 it was loaned to the National Museum of Natural History.

It’s unknown when the researchers plan to release their results.  The ScienceNews article mentions that one of the researchers, Cristina Valdiosera, revealed the plan to sequence Sitting Bull’s genome at an August 2010 scientific meeting:

“Valdiosera said that the researchers have the approval of Sitting Bull’s descendents to perform DNA tests on a sample of his hair, and that the team is trying to extract a full genome. If so, his would become the first ancient, non-frozen, Native American genome sequenced.”

Interestingly, it appears that working with Sitting Bull’s genome may be a life-long dream for Willersleve (see “Fossilized feces found in Oregon suggest earliest human presence in North America”):

“[Willersleve] said his own interest in the subject [of ancient American DNA] was sparked by a boyhood fascination with Sitting Bull and other American Indians.”

Sequencing Famous Genomes

As new techniques for sequencing ancient or low-quality DNA samples are developed, researchers will begin to analyze any famous or ancient genome they can get their hands on, which is already beginning to happen.  As a genealogist, I know very well the affiliation humans have for keeping mementos of the past.  There are probably hundreds of famous and ancient DNA samples waiting their turn for sequencing.

Off the top of my head, here are 5 people – either known or likely to have DNA kicking around – that I would nominate for analysis:

  • Albert Einstein;
  • Abraham Lincoln;
  • Ötzi (I believe this one is already in the works);
  • Juanita the Peruvian Ice Maiden (a 600-year-old mummy); and
  • My great-grandmother Helen (hey, I can’t deny my genealogy side!).

Whose genome would you nominate for sequencing?

Ethical Issues

The ScienceNews article notes “the researchers have the approval of Sitting Bull’s descendents to perform DNA tests on a sample of his hair.”  Certainly they needed permission to obtain DNA from the hair clipping, but did they need permission to sequence that DNA? (setting aside for the moment the many ethical concerns regarding Native American remains).

For example, if I find a hair clipping in a book I purchased at an estate sale, do I have a duty to find the owner’s descendants and ask for permission before sending it away for sequencing?  What if the hair clipping is clearly labeled with the owner’s name and other identifying information?  Further, can I leave instructions for my descendants that they do not sequence or give permission to sequence my DNA?

I’m not a believer in genetic exceptionalism, so I look outside the realm of DNA for insight.  If that book I’d purchased at the estate sale was an old diary or journal, it most likely would not cross my mind to contact the author’s descendants before reading it.  And, interestingly, that diary or journal is much more likely to reveal personal information about the author than anything I could possibly discover in their genome.

What are your thoughts?  What permission might be required when sequencing ancient or famous DNA?

18 Responses

  1. Daniel MacArthur 23 August 2010 / 4:37 am

    Great post, Blaine. Gaining permission in this case was clearly a pre-emptive PR move rather than an ethical requirement: if the researchers had not demonstrated the required level of “sensitivity and respect” they and their institutions would have no doubt been subjected to a media fire-storm, with the end result being them symbolically burying Sitting Bull’s genome sequence forever in a traditional native burial ground.

    Sitting Bull has no living descendants who could realistically be harmed by publishing his genome sequence (i.e. no relatives close enough to infer medical risk), so I agree with you that there’s no serious ethical problem here.

  2. Leon Kull 23 August 2010 / 6:09 am

    Good questions…

    And what do you think about this situation?
    I have a brick wall case when the DNA was extracted and after this the testee has deceased. His descendants gave their agreement for more comprehensive DNA analysis that has been done when he was alive, but…the sample is in possession of SMGF and they refuse to provide it to another Lab or to descendants.

  3. Keith Grimaldi 23 August 2010 / 8:22 am


    1. Charles Darwin
    2. Sample from the Turin Shroud
    3. Martin Luther King
    4. Monica Lewinsky’s dress
    5. My dad (hey too…)

  4. Blaine Bettinger 23 August 2010 / 9:51 am

    @ Dan – I agree, and a brilliant pre-emptive PR move at that! I also get the impression that Willersleve and his team are sensitive to Native American issues, which I think is important for their work. Interesting point about Sitting Bull’s descendants, I hadn’t considered the “diluting” down of Sitting Bull’s genomic information as it pertained to them. That’s exactly why I made it was an old diary in my comparison – it would surely be a different situation where the diary was very recent and contained personal information about the author’s family, for example.

    @Leon – that is frustrating. Perhaps you should check the agreement that governed the submission of your brick wall’s DNA; maybe he and his family retained ownership even though it was submitted (but note that this shouldn’t be construed as legal advice!).

    @ Keith – great nominations! I almost put Darwin in my list too. I wonder what ever happened to that blue dress; will it end up in the Smithsonian someday?

  5. abadidea 23 August 2010 / 5:54 pm

    IMHO he died recently enough (120 years ago) that consulting with his family is ethically important. There is also the issue that respect for the dead varies substantially between cultures and you can’t just write that off. Personally I wouldn’t hesitate to provide permission to sequence any of my ancestors. My grandmother tells me I’m a Scottish princess; I’d love proof… not that it’d be useful for anything.

  6. Blaine Bettinger 23 August 2010 / 9:49 pm

    American Biotechnologist raises yet another interesting question at is sequencing Sitting Bull’s genome (presumably) using public funding a waste of money? Would it be better spent sequencing the genome of someone with a rare genetic disorder, for example? The author also wonders whether glitzy genome projects will raise awareness in the public, eventually leading to increased support and funding.

  7. Howard Wolinsky 24 August 2010 / 8:44 am

    Good thing they preserved Sitting Bull’s hair sample.
    The location of his remains may be in doubt.
    I visited the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation back in the 1970s. A local took us to Sitting Bull’s gravesite. We (my wife and I) were stunned to hear that stealing Sitting Bull’s bones was a local sport involving service clubs from either side of the North/South Dakota border.

  8. Blaine Bettinger 24 August 2010 / 10:04 am

    Howard – that really is terrible. From what I’ve read over the past few days, Sitting Bull’s remains have a long history of being disturbed. Hopefully they are under better protection now.

  9. mary 22 September 2010 / 12:37 pm

    I am a direct descendant of Sitting Bull on my father’s side.

  10. Dave Stafford 14 November 2010 / 12:25 am

    This is interesting information. Thanks.
    In the long run, when it comes to future help, it is better to ask for permission than forgiveness.
    Is there a way to get OLD Y-DNA to amplify and then sequence? I want to find a Y-DNA sample from 1550. I do know where to look. mtdna will not do.


  11. EB 17 November 2010 / 4:20 pm

    “Is there a way to get OLD Y-DNA to amplify and then sequence? I want to find a Y-DNA sample from 1550. ”

    If you’re just interested in determining that a particular male line was actually uninterrupted, then an easier path might be to get current DNA samples from several male line descendants who diverged from that lineage at different times over the past 450 years – doing tests on all those samples with standard Y-chromosome markers could then verify the lineage (or disprove individual portions of the tree).

  12. Dave Stafford 27 November 2010 / 1:39 am

    “an easier path might be to get current DNA samples from several male line descendants”

    Well, one group says ” this is the line” and another two say “no”. We know what the Y-DNA sample should read.(E1b1b1a Stafford lineage 02 14 samples)

    What I am learning about Y-DNA is which same name lines to include in the search and which to exclude.

  13. E1b1b1-M35 18 February 2011 / 9:45 pm

    I’d like to see DNA for the following:

    1. Leonardo Da Vinci
    2. St Thomas (Didymous Thomas)
    3. St James, Simon, Judas (brothers of Jesus the Nazarene)
    4. St John, James Boanerges (Sons of Thunder)
    5. Galileo
    6. Meister Eckhart
    7. Chief Tecumseh
    8. Black Elk
    9. Napoleon
    10. Pope Paul V – Camillo Borghese
    11. Carl Sagan

    and many others …..

  14. Bree 13 March 2011 / 6:00 pm

    (1) The Iceman mummy from Switzerland
    (2) Charlie Chaplin
    (3) Buster Keaton
    (4) Harold Lloyd
    (5) Johann Sebastian Bach
    (6) Ludwig van Beethoven
    (7) George Frideric Handel, etc.
    (8) Vincent Willem van Gogh
    (9) Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn
    (10) Claude Monet
    (11) Édouard Manet
    (12) Edgar Degas
    (13) Beatrice Wood

    If you want St. Thomas his bones are in Chennai, India. Or at least that is what the Catholics claim at Saint Thomas Mount. The church at the top of the huge hill (Saint Thomas Mount) has his bones. It is the same place where several Popes have preached. They claim those are his bones from when he landed there to convert them from Hinduism back in biblical times. The people promptly killed him and preserved his bones for some reason. That is their story and they stick to it. The site is much revered by the Catholics. The relics are housed under glass and watched over by a priest. I have no idea if they are real or not, but this is the legend for the last 2,000+ years.

    I would be interested to see the relics tested to see if they are human and if they are 2,000+ years old. I would also like to know if the relics are from a Jewish male. That would be interesting. Does the legend hold up to DNA testing?

    Jews were in India as traders and merchants. How do you prove the relics belong to a follower of Jesus and are not some random trader or merchant? That is the difficult part. A Jew could have come to India to trade and died of malaria, cholera, viruses, cobra bite, scorpion sting and a lot of other diseases we have treatment for today, but there was no treatment then. Proving the claim that the bones belong to St. Thomas will be especially tough.

  15. Lee 9 July 2011 / 2:53 am

    My top 5 would be:

    1. Jesus of Nazareth
    2. William the Conqueror
    3. The Cheddar Gorge Man
    4. Tutenkahmen
    5. Mine (I’ll get saving now…)

  16. mariea suarez 30 July 2011 / 3:16 pm

    i beg the differ because I am a living descendent of my grandfather sitting bull I am his 8th great great granddaughter princess Mapia and personally taking someones hair and having analyzed for its DNA is a violation of one of our amendments who gives a person the right to violate someone’s personal property even if it is a piece of hair and the fact that they did do it with out asking anyone of us violates the dead as well.

  17. Dave Caster 30 September 2012 / 8:26 pm

    A false claim on Custer, check letters to his wife Libby, he was ORDERED like in IRAQ and other actions. Please don’t degrade anyone in our military due to our leaders and the ilk they control. CUSTER FOUGHT BACK AGINST PRES. GRANT and LOST. If anyone were to actually look into Custer and his lineage and the b/s going on in Washington at the time…. Custer was screwed before he ever took his troops out. He loved the Indians and was forlorn for having to go out, but Washington DC insisted!!! Do you know how many of Custers family died at Little Big Horn? Many of Custer’s cousins were already married or would be married soon after to indian women. It isn’t like history portray’s Custer, even the Indian folklore will tell you so!!! I would check in to the sergeant, commander or whatever the flip he was, the one that sat up on the hill and watched Custer’s Troop get slaughtered, by Sitting Bull. Washington DC ordered it, in order to shut Custer up for being an Indian lover!!!! Look up Captain Custer, also lost his life at Little Big Horn.

    Dave Caster

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