In “The California Indian Handbook” published in 1925, the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber declared that the village of Ohlone was “extinct for all practical purposes.” noting that only “a few scattered individuals survive.”
Although the anthropologist did not recant his declaration of extinction until the 1950s, “the damage was done,” said Charlene Nijmeh, the president of the Muwekma Ohlone tribe, who is far from -is extinct.
The Muwekma Ohlone tribe is a descendant community of the Ohlone people, who originally lived on 4.3 million acres in the Bay Area. For decades, the Muwekma have tried to regain their federally recognized status, which they lost in the 1920s. Linguists and archaeologists had suggested that the Ohlone people emigrated there between 1,500 and 1,000 years ago. But the tribe has long claimed that its presence in the region goes back further.
A study published in March in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provides new genomic evidence that Muwekma’s connection to the bay area dates back at least 2,000 years. Working alongside the Muwekma Ohlone tribe, researchers at several universities extracted the DNA of 12 ancient people buried in the region 2,000 years ago and found biological continuity with the DNA collected from current members of the tribe.
“Validation, finally,” said Monica Arellano, the tribe’s vice president and author of the newspaper. “This adds to all the information we’ve published, years of gathering and research that show who we are.”
Alyssa Bader, an anthropologist at the University of Colorado Boulder who did not participate in the research, praised how the paper included representatives of the tribe as co-authors and highlighted community involvement. “It is recognized as a really essential part of the scientific research method and not something that is buried in supplementary information,” Dr. Bader added: “These are all sorts of interesting guidelines for genomic research that include genomic research on indigenous communities and ancestors.”
In 2014, the San Francisco Public Service Commission proposed a construction project on an archaeological site that probably contained human burials. The commission reached the Muwekma Ohlone tribe, the most likely descendants of the ancient people.
The tribe asked the Far Western Anthropological Research Group, a cultural resource consulting firm, to conduct excavations at the site, which they named Síi Túupentak (site of the water round house). Síi Túupentak, located near the confluence of Alameda Creek and Arroyo de la Laguna, was a lush spot. The village community fished in streams and managed nearby forests and meadows with controlled burning, said Brian Byrd, an archaeologist at Far Western.
Far Western also excavated another nearby ancient site, called Rummey Ta Kuččuwiš Tiprectak (site of the lagoon stream site), which was inhabited 2,500 years ago.
Members of the tribe led the excavations of the burials, which was an emotionally challenging task. “It’s a shame we had to move them,” Ms. Arellano. “But if someone has to do it, we take that responsibility very seriously and with as much care and love as possible.” Burials were probably prepared for people of high lineage, as many were buried with precious shells, such as abalone pendants, Ms. Arellano.
From time to time, when burials were discovered, the excavators gathered under a large tree and talked about the process to make sure everyone was heard, according to Dr. Byrd. “Trust has often been something that is not the first step these days for archeology and native communities,” he said.
Muwekma Ohlone tribal council wanted to know if burials at the sites could help prove the ancient presence of its people in the bay area, said Alan Leventhal, a tribal archaeologist and professor emeritus at St. John’s State University. José.
Ripan Malhi, 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 investigators submitted all additional evidence to the tribal council for approval. The council approved researchers to study dental plaque to detect signs of inhalants such as tobacco, as well as to conduct tests to determine the sex of buried children, Dr. Byrd said. “We were able to identify a few samples of ancestors that had very good conservation,” Dr. Malhi said.
After extracting DNA from the two sites of 12 individuals who lived between a few hundred and 1,900 years ago, the researchers compared their genomes with publicly available genetic information about other Native American communities and ancient individuals around the world. The oldest and most recent burials shared distinctive combinations of genetic variants, suggesting that they were from related groups.
The analysis identified a shared component of ancestry that linked people from the two ancient sites to the current members of the Muwekma. This ancestry can be found in other modern communities, but is present in a much higher proportion in the Muwekma.
“It was surprising to find this level of continuity given the many disruptions that the Ohlone people experienced during the Spanish occupation, such as forced relocations and mixing with other tribes forcibly displaced by the Spaniards,” Dr. Rosenberg said.
In accordance with the principles of indigenous data sovereignty, the Muwekma will review requests for genomic data collected from tribal sites and members, while retaining power over how the data is used. “It’s minimizing potential damage to communities,” Dr. Bader. “That’s important.”
For members of the Muwekma Ohlone tribe, these genetic findings represent a new line of evidence that aligns with the oral history of their tribe. “That’s pretty much our story, having to prove who we are,” Ms. Arellano. “We knew who we were, we knew who we were and we’re still here.”
The Muwekma can trace their ancestry through various missions in the bay area and resided in small settlements called rancheries until the early 1900s, Mr. Leventhal.
The tribe had been federally recognized by a different name, Verona Band of Alameda County. But it lost recognition after 1927, when a Sacramento superintendent determined that the Muwekma and more than 100 more tribal gangs needed no more land, effectively ending the tribal’s formal federal recognition, Mr. Leventhal. “The tribe was never killed by any act of Congress,” he added.
The Muwekma hope the new study and any other research will strengthen their argument for federal recognition. “The cost of living is driving us out,” said Ms. Nijmeh, the tribe’s president. “Recognition means that we will be able to have a land base and a community people and that our people will stay on our land where it belongs.”
Síi Túupentak will soon open an interpretation center with some of the artifacts of the excavation, informative signage on the history of the tribal language and a replica of an eagle, an allusion to the history of the creation of Muwekma.
But the ancient villages buried in Síi Túupentak will be reburied elsewhere, as close as possible to their original graves, Ms. Arellano.
“This was to be his final resting place,” he said. “They should never have moved.”