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A reconstructed face of the Kennewick Man.
Kennewick Man is the name for the skeletal remains of a prehistoric man found on a bank of the Columbia River in Kennewick, Washingtonmarker, USAmarker on July 28, 1996. The discovery of Kennewick Man was accidental: a pair of spectators (Will Thomas and David Deacy) found his skull while attending the annual hydroplane races.

The remains became embroiled in debates about the relationship between Native American religious rights, archaeology and other interested stakeholders. Based on the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), five Native American groups (the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Yakama, Wanapum, and Colville) claimed the remains as theirs, to be buried by traditional means. Only the Umatilla tribe continued further court proceedings. In February 2004, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that a cultural link between the tribes and the skeleton was not met, allowing scientific study of the remains to continue.

In July 2005, a team of scientists from around the United States convened in Seattlemarker for ten days to study the remains, making many detailed measurements and determining the cause of death.

Scientific significance

The remains of the Kennewick Man
The remains had been scattered in the reservoir due to erosion. Following delivery of the cranium by the coroner, they were examined by archaeologist James Chatters. After ten visits to the site, Chatters had managed to collect 350 bones and pieces of bone, which with the skull completed almost an entire skeleton. The cranium was fully intact with all the teeth that had been present at the time of death. All major bones were found, except the sternum and a few bones of the hands and feet. The remains were determined to be those of "a male of late middle age (40-55 years), and tall (170 to 176 cm), slender build". Many of the bones however, were broken into several pieces. At the University of California at Riversidemarker, a small bone fragment was subjected to radiocarbon dating. This fixed the age of the skeleton at approximately 8,400 radiocarbon years or 9,300 calendar years, not the nineteenth century, as had originally been assumed. After studying the bones, Chatters concluded they belonged to a Caucasoid male about tall who had died in his mid fifties.

Chatters found that bone had partially grown around a stone projectile lodged in the illium, part of the pelvic bone. On x-ray, nothing appeared. Chatters put the bone through a CPT scan, and it was discovered the projectile was made from a siliceous gray stone that was found to have igneous origins. Geologically, this refers to a stone that formed in a silica-rich environment during a volcanic period. The projectile was leaf-shaped, long, broad and had serrated edges, all fitting the definition of a Cascade point. This type of point is a feature of the Cascade phase, occurring in the archaeological record from roughly 5000 to over 8000 years ago.

To further investigate the mystery of the Kennewick man and determine if the skeleton belonged to the Umatilla Native American tribe, an extraction of DNA was analyzed but at first could not be completed because it contradicted Native American values protected under NAGPRA. Anthropologist Joseph Powell of the University of New Mexicomarker was finally allowed to examine the remains and his conclusions were contradictory. He said that Kennewick Man was not European but rather resembled South Asians and the Ainu people of northeast Asia. The results of a graphic comparison, including size, of Kennewick Man to 18 modern populations conducted by Chatters et al. showed he was most closely related to the Ainu. However, when size was excluded as a factor, no association to any population was established.

The biological diversity among ancient skulls in the Americas has further complicated attempts to establish how closely Kennewick Man is related to any modern Native American tribes. Skulls older than 8,000 years old have been found to possess greater physical diversity than do those of modern Native Americans. This range implies that there was a genetic shift in populations about 8,000 years ago. The heterogeneity of these early people shows that genetic drift had already occurred, meaning the racial type represented by Kennewick Man had been in existence for a considerable period of time.

The discovery of Kennewick Man, along with other ancient skeletons, has furthered scientific debate over the exact origin and history of early Native American people. The prevailing hypothesis holds that a single wave of migration occurred, consisting of hunters and gatherers following large herds of game, which wandered across the Bering land bridge around 12,000 years ago. Other hypotheses contend that there were numerous waves of migration to the Americas. The apparent diversity of ancient skeletal remains, which may include traits not typically associated with modern Native Americans, has been used as evidence to support these rival hypotheses. Recent (2008) evidence on the genetics of modern populations argues that they originated in a single migration.

Ownership controversy

According to NAGPRA, if human remains are found on federal lands and their cultural affiliation to a Native American tribe can be established, the affiliated tribe can claim them. The Umatilla tribe requested custody of the remains, wanting to bury them according to tribal tradition. However, their claim was contested by researchers hoping to study the remains.

The Umatilla argued that their creation myths say that their people have been present on their historical territory since the dawn of time, so a government holding that Kennewick Man is not Native American is tantamount to the government's rejection of their religious beliefs.

Robson Bonnichsen and seven other anthropologists sued the United States for the right to conduct tests on the skeleton. On February 4, 2004, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit panel rejected the appeal brought by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Umatilla, Colville, Yakama, Nez Perce and other tribes on the grounds that they were unable to show any evidence of kinship.

On April 7, 2005, during the 109th Congress, United States Senator John McCain introduced an amendment to NAGPRA which (section 108) would have changed the definition of "Native American" from being that which "is indigenous to the United States" to "is or was indigenous to the United States." However, the 109th Congress concluded without enacting the bill. By the bill's definition, Kennewick Man would have been classified as Native American, regardless of whether any link to a contemporary tribe could be found. Proponents of this definition argue that it agrees with current scientific understanding, which is that it is not in all cases possible for prehistoric remains to be traced to current tribal entities, partly because of social upheaval, forced resettlement and extinction of entire ethnicities caused by disease and warfare. Doing so, however, would still not remove the controversy surrounding Kennewick Man as then it would have to be decided which Native American group should take possession of the remains if he could not be definitively linked with a current tribe. To be of practical use in a historical and prehistorical context, some argue further that the term "Native American" should be applied so that it spans the entire range from the Clovis culture (which cannot be positively assigned to any contemporary tribal group) to the Métis, a group of mixed ancestry who only came into being as a consequence of European contact, yet constitute a distinct cultural entity.

The remains are now at the Burke Museummarker at the University of Washingtonmarker, where they were deposited in October 1998. They are still legally the property of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, since they were found on land belonging to them.

See also



Further reading

  • Jones, Peter N. "Respect for the Ancestors: American Indian Cultural Affiliation in the American West" Boulder: Bauu Press, 2005. ISBN 0-9721349-2-1
  • Chatters, James C. "Ancient Encounters: Kennewick Man & the First Americans" New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002. ISBN 0-684-85936-X
  • Dawkins, Richard. "Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder" Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. ISBN 0-618-05673-4
  • Downey, Roger. "Riddle of the Bones: Politics, Science, Race, and the Story of Kennewick Man" New York: Springer, 2000. ISBN 978-0387988771
  • Thomas, David Hurst. "Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity" New York: Basic Books, ca. 2000. ISBN 0-465-09224-1
  • Adler, Jerry. "A 9,000-Year-Old Secret." New York: Newsweek. July 25, 2005. Vol. 146, Issue 4; pg. 52. (link)
  • Benedict, Jeff. "No bone unturned: Inside the world of a top forensic scientist and his work on America's most notorious crimes and disasters" New York: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2003. ISBN 0-06-095888-X
  • Readings in American Indian Law: Recalling the Rhythm of Survival, Philadelphia: Temple University Press (Jo Carrillo ed. 1998).
  • Bones, Discovering the First Americans, Elaine Dewar, Carroll & Graf Publishers, New York, 2002, ISBN 0-7867-0979-0

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