Kennewick Man: The Most Famous Skeleton in America
Do the bones of Kennewick Man belong to Native Americans?
People have lived in the Americas for a long time, perhaps 13 to 15 thousand years, as current scientific research and discovery seems to indicate. Where these ancient Americans came from is also a subject of investigation. The most likely location is Siberia, according to what many scientists think. But, fortunately, bones and artifacts continue to be found and what will be dug-up in the coming years and decades could present startling revelations.
A revelation or two was in store in 1996 when some passersby discovered the bones of man along the Columbia River in Kennewick, Washington. After some investigation, scientists estimated the bones were about 9,600 years old. These scientists would like to continue studying the bones of what came to be known as Kennewick Man, but Native Americans want possession of the bones so they can rebury them according to their customs and beliefs.
Yet the bones remain under lock and key and what will happen to them in the future is anybody’s guess. Let’s look into this interesting and controversial issue and learn more about Kennewick Man, this ancient human who ventured through a strange new land many thousands of years ago.
Please keep reading!
The Discovery of Kennewick Man
Two spectators at a hydroplane race discovered the ancient bones of a man along the banks of the Columbian River in July 1996. The first archaeologist to examine the bones was James Chatters, who over the course of ten visits found 350 bones and bone fragments, comprising a nearly intact human skeleton, including a complete skull with a mouthful of teeth.
Radiocarbon dating on a piece of these bones showed they were over 9,000 years old, some of the oldest human bones ever discovered in the Americas. Chatters concluded the bones were those of a Caucasoid male and he was about 40 to 55 years old at the time of his death. Chatters also concluded this man had been buried in the ground and not simply fallen there at the time of death.
In point of fascination, most of the oldest skeletons found in North America have been labeled as Caucasoid.
Chatters also found the tip of a spear in the hip bone of the skeleton. A subsequent CT scan showed this to be a Cascade point, which ancient peoples created some 7,500 to 12,000 years ago. Since the hip bone continued growing after the injury, the man must have lived for years afterward. This man had also sustained broken ribs and skull fractures and had suffered from arthritis in various parts of the body. Also, the bones of his right shoulder showed wear and tear from years of throwing a heavy object such as a stone-tipped spear, perhaps while hunting game.
Interestingly, one facial reconstruction based on the skull of Kennewick Man seems to indicate he may have resembled actor Patrick Stewart!
Who Was Kennewick Man?
Many people assumed these bones comprised the earthly remains of a Native American but scientists have disagreed. Chatters and other scientists have concluded that Kennewick Man was not Asian or European but had the characteristics of the Ainu or Polynesians, essentially the ancient peoples of the islands of the northwestern Pacific Ocean, including Japan and the Kuril Islands.
Further, scientists content that the skulls of ancient Americans over 8,000 years old have greater cranial diversity than that of more recent Native Americans. The skull of Kennewick Man shows what is called genetic drift, which means its genetic diversity had been in existence for thousands of years. Perhaps this changed when large numbers of people from Siberia came to North America after 8,000 B.P. (before the present), creating a more homogeneous gene pool.
Scientists suggest that the ancestors of Kennewick Man - or perhaps Kennewick Man himself - may have traveled by boat from the islands of eastern Asia to North America. Analysis of the bones of Kennewick Man show that he subsisted on a diet of marine animals, rather than the fresh water variety found in the Columbia River.
They also suggest that traveling by boat along the coastline from Asia to North America would have been a relatively easy thing to do.
Native Americans Claim the Bones of Kennewick Man
According to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), enacted in 1990, if human remains and artifacts are found on federal lands, and if the Native American tribe to which they are affiliated can be ascertained, such remains and artifacts may be returned to the tribe. Using this law, the Umatilla people have claimed the bones of Kennewick Man, since tribal leaders say their ancestors have lived on the Columbian Plateau for 10,000 years. (Other tribes have also claimed possession of the bones.)
Armand Minthorn, a spokesman for the Umatilla tribe wrote in 1996:
Scientists have dug up and studied Native Americans for decades. We view this practice as desecration of the body and a violation of our most deeply-held religious beliefs. From our oral histories, we know that our people have been a part of this land since the dawn of time. We do not believe that our people migrated here from another continent, as the scientists do.
But scientists, politicians and others have argued that although it may be proven that the remains of Kennewick Man constitute those of a Native American, it cannot be proven to which tribe Kennewick Man belongs; therefore, the bones belong to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, since they were found on land under its custody.
More Recent News about Kennewick Man
Per an article in September 2014 issue of Smithsonian magazine entitled “The 9,000-Year-Old Man Speaks,” numerous authors have contributed to a 680-page analysis of Kennewick Man, the title of which is Kennewick Man: The Scientific Investigation of an Ancient American Skeleton. Among many engrossing facts, the magazine article states that Kennewick Man is one of the oldest skeletons ever found in America.
“You can count on your fingers the number of ancient, well-preserved skeletons there are in North America,” says forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley, who has studied the human remains of over 13,000 people, representing a time-period covering 10,000 years.
At one point, the Army Corps of Engineers was poised to return Kennewick Man to the Native American tribes - as it and other government agencies have often done since NAGPRA was passed - but Owsley and other scientists, determined to learn more of the skeleton’s secrets, sued the federal government. This lawsuit dragged on for years until 2004, when the government ruled in favor of the scientists, writing:
Because Kennewick Man’s remains are so old and the information about his era is so limited, the record does not permit the Secretary of the Interior to conclude reasonably that Kennewick Man shares special and significant genetic or cultural features with presently existing indigenous tribes, people, or cultures.
This verdict allowed the scientists to examine the bones of Kennewick Man for 16 days which they did in 2005 and 2006. This included a DNA analysis of the bones but the test failed to reveal any usable data. Further DNA testing of the skeleton remains a project for the future. Owsley claims that a DNA analysis of one tooth would allow scientists to pinpoint Kennewick Man’s point of origin.
As of October 1998, the bones of Kennewick Man have lain in the Burke Museum at the University of Washington.
New DNA Evidence
In June 2015, Eske Willerslev, a geneticist at the University of Copenhagen, after studying DNA taken from the bones of Kennewick Man, declared in an article of Nature that his DNA analysis proved that Kennewick Man was more closely related to contemporary Native Americans than any other genetic group. However, Willerslev and his colleagues admitted they couldn’t prove that Kennewick Man was an early ancestor of the Colville tribe (who have a reservation in northeastern Washington) or any other tribe, for that matter, demanding custody of the bones.
The first episode of the PBS program First Peoples has a segment about Kennewick Man and this latest DNA study of his bones. Don’t miss it!
Who Owns Kennewick Man?
Some people think scientists - particularly archaeologists and anthropologists - are little more than grave or tomb robbers. This seems to be what many Native Americans think and, of course, they have every right to think what they want. It’s quite possible that other indigenous peoples throughout the world may feel the same way.
So, who’s right, scientists or the indigenous peoples of the world? Well, like it or not, issues such as the ownership of Kennewick Man are up to the judicial systems of various countries to decide. In a way, this seems a battle of science versus religion, a conflict that has been raging for many centuries and will almost certainly continue to do so for many years.
It doesn’t have to be this way, of course, because knowledge should be for everyone - no matter how it's obtained. Unfortunately, such knowledge can often be found only in graves, tombs or pyramids. Should we leave them all sealed up forever just to keep from offending native peoples? If the Native American tribes had quickly taken possession of the bones of Kennewick Man, that 680-page analysis of Kennewick Man would not exist. Wouldn’t that be a tragedy for people of science the world over?
What would you decide in this issue?
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© 2014 Kelley Marks