Kennewick Man

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Kennewick Man (also known as the Ancient One) is an Early Holocene human skeleton first discovered near Kennewick, Washington in 1996. Its age is estimated at 9200 to 9600 years, making it one of the oldest sets of human remains yet found in North America. Kennewick Man is also at the center of a long debate between scientists who stress the importance of studying the remains in order to advance our understanding of early humans in the Americas and people in the Native American community who claim cultural rights to the remains under the rules of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and wish to rebury the skeleton.

Discovery and preliminary investigation

Kennewick man’s skull was first discovered on July 28th, 1996 along the bank of the Columbia River on land under the administration of the Army Corps of Engineers. Anthropologist Jim Chatters was recruited to lead an investigation of the remains and a nearly complete skeleton was recovered in the following days. "The completeness and unusually good condition of the skeleton, presence of caucasoid traits, lack of definitive Native-American characteristics, and the association with an early homestead led [Chatters] to suspect that the bones represented a European settler,"[1] but other evidence soon led his team's investigation in another direction. CT scans revealed the object embedded in the skeleton's right hip to be a Cascade point, indicating a much earlier origin. A small piece of bone was sent to a lab at the University of California at Riverside for carbon dating and it was confirmed that the skeleton was over 9000 years old.[2]

Other preliminary observations made by Chatters and his team[3] revealed a number of details about Kennewick Man that make him particularly interesting to paleontologists and anthropologists. His skull shows no evidence of head flattening from a cradle board, his weight bearing bones show minimal signs of arthritis, and his teeth show relatively little wear, all of which sets him apart from more recent populations in the region. His facial features also distinguish him from other populations: he shares a number of traits in common with modern caucasoid populations, others with modern Native Americans, and still others with neither group. His dental characteristics suggest ties to South Asian peoples.

Kennewick Man was tall (170 to 176 cm ) and lived to be 40 to 55 years old. He rarely carried more than forty or fifty pounds, as is indicated by the minimal sign of arthritis in his bones.[4] And he ate a lot of soft foods, especially fish.[5] He survived a number of significant injuries, including a bone crushing blow to the chest, atrophy of the left humerus, and the spear strike to his hip.

Subsequent findings

Further study of the Kennewick bones was significantly delayed by the legal proceedings discussed below, but scientists from several different fields have been given access to the remains in the years since the conclusion of those proceedings and several important pieces of information have come to light.

The limited dispersal of the bones reveals that the skeleton eroded out of the river bank less than a year before it was discovered. No funerary items or other artifacts have been found in the area and erosion control projects have prevented searches for such items, but there is evidence that Kennewick Man was buried on purpose and there has been some speculation that other burials may have occurred in the same area. Abrasions that were initially thought to be the result of rodents have proved to be a result of sand and other debris that rubbed against the bones in the water after they eroded from their context. No other signs of scavengers have been discovered, indicating that Kennewick Man was buried after his death. Further studies of calcium carbonate accumulations and algae growth on the underside of the bones show that Kennewick man was buried on his back with his arms placed at his sides, his palms downward, and his feet pointing east. His head was inclined slightly forward, perhaps in order to face the rising sun.[6][7]

Bone measurements from the Kennewick remains have been compared to those of populations from around the world and have been found to most closely resemble the Ainu people of Japan. This has caused many scholars to question the long standing theory that the Americas were populated exclusively by migrations across Beringia. Combined with evidence from elsewhere, Kennewick Man's great age and apparent connections with South Asian populations suggest that people from multiple ethnic groups made the journey to the Americas both by foot and by boat. Thus far, DNA testing has been inconclusive and therefore unable to support (or disprove) such connections.

Kennewick Man in court

Chatters quickly recognized the significance of the Kennewick bones, noting in 1996 that the ancient and nearly complete skeleton was "a unique find for North America"[8] but he also knew that it would be a challenge to satisfy both the scientific community and the Native American community, who each held a stake in the fate of the bones. "We're not sure what is going to happen next," he said, "It's a sensitive issue dealing with Native American remains, or anyone's remains. This person could be related to anyone with Native American ancestry." [9]

Controversy erupted soon after the historic discovery as to what would become of Kennewick Man. In early September 1996, the federal government, which was now in custody of the bones, announced that the remains would be returned to the five tribes (the Yakama, Umatilla, Nez Perce, Colville and Wanapum) that had claimed rights to them under the conventions of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which requires museums and government agencies to return to Native American tribes any human remains, funerary objects, or sacred objects that fall within the tribes’ cultural patrimony. Before the end of the mandatory comment period, however, eight anthropologists filed suit against the government in a Portland court, claiming that "repatriation will deprive scholars of any opportunity or right to study this treasure."[10] The anthropologists argued that they would cause no harm to the remains and that they were in fact honoring them by seeking to learn from them, adding that there is no proof that the skeleton is actually related to any of the tribes that live in the Columbia basin today.

Representatives of the tribes countered that the anthropologists’ studies were offensive to the Native American community and recalled the history of disregard for American Indian objections to the collection of sacred objects and cultural artifacts to be put on display in distant museums. The tribes considered the Ancient One their ancestor and insisted that he be respectfully reburied. They also produced oral histories that supported their claims.

The court called on the United States Department of the Interior to commission a series of studies to determine the extent of cultural affiliation between Kennewick Man and the modern tribes who had claimed cultural rights under NAGPRA. The results of those studies were largely inconclusive, however, in large part because no grave goods or other cultural artifacts were found with the skeleton that could connect it to the modern tribes of the Columbia Valley. The court ruled in favor of the scientists in August 2002 but the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Yakama, and Colville tribes quickly filed a suit of their own and the legal battle dragged on into 2004. On April 19th, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a request to rehear the case en banc.

Following the court's final pronouncement, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) issued a press release announcing their decision against pursuing further legal action.[11] Citing a lack of financial resources and a fear that an unfavorable court decision would result in new laws, the CTUIR said that it would redirect its resources toward efforts to strengthen NAGPRA. Such efforts have met with some success -- in 2005 and again in 2007, bills were introduced in the United States Senate that, if passed, would extend the NAGPRA definition of "Native American" to historic groups that have left no living descendants, meaning that proof of cultural affiliation with a modern tribe would not be necessary for human remains to fall under the scope of NAGPRA.[12]

Over the course of the 8-year legal proceedings, the Kennewick skeleton was moved several times, turbulent debates erupted over who had been given access to the remains and under what conditions, and several pieces of the bones disappeared for some two and a half years. Kennewick Man’s remains are currently housed in the Burke Museum at the University of Washington, which states on its website that it “will continue to provide a secure and respectful repository for these human remains" until otherwise instructed by the court or the Army Corps of Engineers.[13] They are thoroughly inspected biannually to ensure that they are being properly cared for and that they remain in good shape.


  1. James Chatters. 1997. "Encounter with an Ancestor." Anthropology Newsletter 38(1):9-10.
  2. Chatters reported in the Anthropology Newsletter that the bone fragment had an isotopically-corrected age of 8410 +/- 60 B.P. (UCR 3476), placing it between 7300 and 7600 B.C.
  3. James Chatters. 1997. "Encounter with an Ancestor." Anthropology Newsletter 38(1):9-10.
  4. John Stang. "Tri-City skeleton dated at 9,000 years old". Tri-City Herald, August 28, 1996.
  5. James Chatters. 1997. "Encounter with an Ancestor." Anthropology Newsletter 38(1):9-10.
  6. Anna King. "Kennewick Man was buried after he died". Tri-City Herald, February 24, 2006.
  7. Michael D. Lemonick and Andrea Dorfman. "Who Were the First Americans?" TIME, March 5, 2006.
  8. John Stang. "Tri-City skeleton dated at 9,000 years old". Tri-City Herald, August 28, 1996.
  9. John Stang. "Tri-City skeleton dated at 9,000 years old". Tri-City Herald, August 28, 1996.
  10. Dave Schafer and John Stang. "Anthropologists fight to study Kennewick bones". Tri-City Herald, October 18, 1996.
  11. Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Press release: CTUIR will not pursue case in the US Supreme Court. July 19, 2004.
  12. Annette Cary. "Senate bill could untie Kennewick Man bones". Tri-City Herald, October 4, 2007.
  13. The Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. 2007. Electronic document, Kennewick Man on Trial. Retrieved September 29, 2007.