by Kerri Wilhelm
Dr. Deborah Bolnick, a molecular anthropologist and associate professor in UT’s Anthropology Department, has been accessing TARL’s Human Osteology collection at various points over the course of the last few years. In October 2014 she made two visits to the HO collections with Research Fellow Jennifer Raff, also of the Anthropology Department at UT, following allocation of project funding and support provided by the Rock Art Foundation. During these visits, they selected skeletal elements that appeared to best meet the criteria for a specific type of DNA sampling: aDNA. This kind of DNA, “ancient DNA” or aDNA, is characterized as DNA that can be isolated from prehistoric specimens such as mummified soft tissues, skeletal remains and intact teeth. Dr. Bolnick is investigating the biological ancestry of the prehistoric inhabitants of the Lower Pecos region of Texas. Her research will create a genomic map of these populations and identify genetic diversity of these groups, ostensibly allowing scientists to determine genetic associations, as well as rates and direction of gene flow into and out of this culturally rich region spanning the landscape between Texas and Mexico. Recently she was a part of a well-publicized genetic study of a prehistoric adolescent, whose remains were recovered from an underwater cave in Mexico and relative dated to the late Pleistocene (12,000-13,000 years ago). Called “Naia,” and also known as the “Hoyo Negro Girl,” the remains of this female teenager included a tooth which was analyzed by researchers, including UT’s own Dr. Bolnick, for DNA. For the interesting story of Naia and what her prehistoric DNA is revealing about the origins of paleoindians and Native Americans for science, please visit: http://www.futurity.org/native-americans-cave-teen-ancestry/.
Dr. Bolnick’s next round of research will involve sampling of other prehistoric sites represented here at TARL in the HO collections. Along with one of her PhD. students, Austin Reynolds, Dr. Bolnick will be selecting prehistoric skeletal elements for aDNA sampling and then performing the sample retrieval process at her lab on UT’s downtown campus. These samples will become part of her ongoing research into Native American genetic diversity following European contact in North America. In addition to her work with prehistoric remains and aDNA, Dr. Bolnick has also published research that pertains to modern commercial DNA testing and what the general public should know about interpreting the results of such tests in terms of validity and limitations. To read the article about Dr. Bolnick’s perspectives on the new fad of commercially available DNA tests, what the results can actually be used to determine, and how this trend could necessitate redefining ethnic identities and ancestral affiliations, please read the 2007 feature story here: http://www.utexas.edu/features/2007/ancestry/.
Dr. Bolnick has consistently made herself available to meet with staff to discuss her ongoing research, her sampling and testing methodologies and laboratory processes, and is also helping us to understand the value of the knowledge gained through such research. Well-versed in the sensitivities inherent to working with both modern and prehistoric human remains, Dr. Bolnick is a proponent of NAGPRA (Public Law 101-601, http://www.nps.gov/nagpra/mandates/25usc3001etseq.htm) and congenially responded to all of our questions and concerns born of our evolving dedication to NAGPRA here at TARL. An advocate for open dialog with tribal communities and the sharing of knowledge that results from her research efforts with cultural, academic and scientific entities, Dr. Bolnick well recognizes the value of collections like those at TARL. We in turn recognize that collections are best utilized when they continue to serve as resources for the progression of knowledge and understanding, providing researchers like Deborah Bolnick the means to further our understanding of our origins and, ultimately, ourselves.