Skeletal remains headed for DNA testing

Deadwood Historic Preservation Officer Kevin Kuchenbecker and Deadwood City Archivist Mike Runge help at the archaeological survey of 66 Taylor Ave. when the skeletal remains were discovered. Pioneer photo by

Jaci Conrad Pearson

DEADWOOD — Deadwood City Archivist Mike Runge obtained permission from the Deadwood Historic Preservation Commission Wednesday to move forward with forensic DNA testing of an unmarked burial of skeletal human remains found at 66 Taylor Ave. discovered in 2012.

Deadwood Historic Preservation Officer Kevin Kuchenbecker said that a cranial reconstruction and dental analysis have also been performed on the remains.

“This is just one more piece of the puzzle,” Kuchenbecker said. “Ultimately, we would like to positively identify this person, but at this point, I don’t know if that will happen.”

If approved by the Deadwood City Commission, the city would enter into a $3,000 contract with Angie Ambers, a forensic DNA analyst at the Institute of Applied Genetics and Center for Human Identification in Ft. Worth, Texas.

Ambers would extract DNA samples from the teeth and bone of the unidentified individual. The breakdown for the tests is as follows: mitochondrial DNA sequencing of four bone samples; Y-chromosome testing of four bone samples; and single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) analysis for hair/eye color prediction of four bone samples.

“Mitochondrial and Y-chromosome testing are standard protocols used with old skeletal remains,” Ambers said. “Given the age of the remains in question and because you’re hoping to identify him and possibly link him to currently-living descendants, this is the best route to take.”

Ambers added that maternal lineage is traced with mitochondrial DNA sequencing, while paternal lineage is tracked using Y-chromosome markers.

“Hence, both mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosome testing are methods of ‘kinship analysis.’ But they are also known as ‘lineage markers’ because they can provide ancestral/ethnicity/race approximations,” Ambers said. “Ultimately, mitochondrial DNA sequencing and Y-chromosome profiling (in the case of males) are the ‘gold standards’ for use in missing persons cases and cases involving unidentified remains where the likelihood of degraded autosomal DNA is imminent.”

The expenditures for this project would cover the costs of reagents and other consumables necessary to carry out the work. The Deadwood Historic Preservation Commission will not be charged for the labor. The Institute of Applied Genetics and Center for Human Identification will volunteer their services.

“Starting with four DNA extractions is appropriate to assess the state of what we’re working with,” Ambers said. “The samples that would work best for DNA testing are the unerupted third molar teeth, which likely have provided the most protective environment for the DNA and the long bones, e.g., a femur and tibia. We would request both unerupted wisdom teeth, a femur and tibia to work with. Obviously, we would only sample a portion of the femur and tibia and would return the unused portion to you when we are finished with the analysis for burial at Mt. Moriah.”

In 2012, construction workers unearthed a fully articulated coffin burial while replacing a retaining wall. In addition to Deadwood Historic Preservation officials being onsite, South Dakota State archaeologists were on hand to exhume the burial. The remains were then transported to Dr. Diane France who compiled a forensic report on this individual. Anthropologists have established the unidentified remains to be that of a male.

“One of the interesting features associated with this burial are the number of dental fillings performed on this individual,” Runge said. “Three gold and six tin/silver amalgam.”

“Evidence of dental work and the composition of the filling matter are indicators that this individual may have had some sort of wealth or elevated status in society,” said Kuchenbecker.

Upon completion of this project, the individual will be interred at Mt. Moriah Cemetery and the data will be used to develop an exhibit and facial reconstruction for the Mt. Moriah Cemetery Visitor Center.

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