Eighteen years after his near-complete skeletal remains were found along the bank of the Columbia River in eastern Washington, Kennewick Man is finally telling his 9,000-year-old story -- and reshaping our knowledge of how North America was first populated by humans.
The prehistoric man's bones have yielded clues about his diet and lineage, convincing forensic anthropologist Doug Owsley of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History that he was an immigrant who had come a long way before his death. Based on his diet of seals and other marine mammals and the shape of his skull, the theory is he and his relatives traveled in boats from Polynesia, along the coasts of Japan, Russia, Alaska, Canada and eventually up the Columbia River.
“We’re realizing there are people getting here much earlier than we thought, and coming using different modes of transportation,” Owsley said.
“We’re realizing there are people getting here much earlier than we thought, and coming using different modes of transportation.”
The dramatic scientific discovery almost didn’t happen because of the federal government. The Army Corps of Engineers tried to give the bones to local tribes for re-burial before they could be studied, but a lawsuit filed by several scientists blocked the transfer. The Corps did manage to prevent any further finds around where the bones were discovered, dumping 2 million pounds of dirt and planting several thousand trees on top of Kennewick Man’s burial site.
U.S. Magistrate Judge John Jelderks, who heard the scientists' case, wrote in his opinion the Army Corps of Engineers had ‘prejudged the outcome’ in the interest of fostering a climate of cooperation with the tribes.
The Army Corps of Engineers was enforcing NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The law, which was passed in 1990, established rules for the handling of Native American remains. But Owsley and other experts argued Kennewick Man was not a Native American. He was a Polynesian who would have had no cultural or genetic connection to any Native American.
Still, the Army Corp of Engineers is defending its effort to hand the bones over to the tribes.
“We are very sensitive to the facts the tribes view the remains as being very significant,” said Jennifer Richman of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Portland, Ore. “The tribes view the remains as their ancestor.”
Jelderks, and later the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, disagreed with the government and demanded the Army Corps of Engineers allow the bones to be studied. Owsley ran tests on Kennewick Man over a 16-day period.
The Umatilla Tribe continues to fight.
“We maintain, and nothing has been published to date to refute, that the Ancient One is one of our ancestors,” the tribe wrote in a statement.
Anthropologists say the tribes are just trying to flex political muscle and the Corps capitulated.
“That law is supposed to be a compromise between the scientists and Native Americans, not just a one-sided law that hands everything over,” said James Chatters, the first forensic anthropologist to study Kennewick Man.
Kennewick Man is currently being kept away from the public in Seattle’s Burke Museum. Scientists are required to petition the Army Corps of Engineers to run additional tests, which they say they’ll do. They believe Kennewick Man has a lot more to tell them about the history of mankind.