Kennewick Man

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Kennewick Man





The relevance of the Kennewick Man discovery to the issue of race is a consequence of semantic confusion over the meaning of the term Caucasoid between the scientist who initially inspected the find and the public media that reported it.


In July 1996, two young men discovered a human skull on the banks of the Columbia River in Kennewick, Washington, on land owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The county coroner enlisted the assistance of a local forensic anthropologist, who worked for the next month to recover the rest of the skeleton from the mud of the reservoir. Ultimately, he recovered a nearly complete skeleton in excellent condition.

Upon initial inspection, the skull and limbs appeared to more closely resemble those of a European than a local Native American; they were Caucasoid-like. The skull was long, high, and narrow, the mid-face projecting, and the chin prominent. The limbs were long, with proportionately longer lower arm and leg bones than are usually reported for Native American skeletal remains. These features, along with excellent preservation and association with late-nineteenth-century artifacts, led the anthropologist initially to suggest the remains might be from an early Euro-American settler. This inference came into question a few days later when, while cleaning the skeleton, he found a stone spearpoint embedded in the pelvis.

To resolve the apparent contradiction between the embedded artifact and the skeletal morphology, the coroner submitted a small bone for radiocarbon dating. The carbon-14 dating found the skeleton to be between 9,300 and 9,500 years old. This made the skeleton one of the oldest and best-preserved examples of human remains ever found in North America. Some in the media, as well as some public figures, quickly jumped to the conclusion that “Caucasoid-like” features meant that the first Americans had been Caucasians. To anthropologists who study the earliest Americans, however, it simply joined other discoveries, such as the Spirit Cave Mummy from Nevada, in suggesting that the first people in the Western Hemisphere had differed phenotypically from the historic indigenous inhabitants and that the peopling of the Americas may have been a more complex process than the immigration of a single, small group of ancestral eastern Siberians. Multiple episodes of migration from Asia may well have occurred toward the end of the last Ice Age, when that region was populated by disparate, morphologically distinct populations, most of whom would not fit the modern image of “Asians.’


The discovery set off a political firestorm and led to an important legal decision. Five Native American tribes—the Umatilla, Yakama, Wanapum, Nez Percé, and Colville— quickly claimed the remains, citing the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA). That act, intended to protect the remains of Native American skeletons from wanton desecration, and to facilitate the return of museum specimens to their probable descendants, requires a federal agency to turn over any inadvertently discovered Native American remains to an affiliated tribe or, without affiliation, to the tribe that the U.S. Court of Federal Claims had determined owned the land in historic times. The various tribes asserted that because their religion dictated they had originated in the territory they occupied in the nineteenth century, which included the place where Kennewick Man had been found, he was certainly their ancestor and should be returned immediately for reburial. The Corps of Engineers concurred and published its intent to turn the remains over to the Umatilla tribe. The corps had concluded that the Umatilla tribe had occupied the region around the discovery site at the time of European contact, meeting one of the criteria established for repatriation under NAGPRA.

Scientific interest among scholars was high. Numerous biological anthropologists and archaeologists sought the opportunity to study these unique remains. Initially, they sent study requests to the Corps of Engineers and to the concerned native governments, but, after being ignored, eight of them (Robson Bonnichsen, C. Loring Brace, George W. Gill, C. Vance Haynes Jr., Richard L. Jantz, Douglas W. Owsley, Dennis J. Stanford, and D. Gentry Steele) ultimately filed suit in the Federal District Court in Portland, Oregon, to halt the scheduled repatriation. The case, known as Bonnichsen et al. v. United States, lasted eight years. Two other claimants, a Norse revivalist religion known as the Asatru Folk Assembly, and Joseph Siofele, a Polynesian who hailed Kennewick Man as an ancestor of his people, also filed suits, but the first dropped out and the second case was dismissed.

Both the Asatru and Siofele appeared to take the opportunity provided by Kennewick Man’s distinctive physical characteristics—the Asatru his supposed “Caucasoid-like” appearance and Siofele the statistical similarity of the Kennewick skull to that of some Polynesian peoples—to legitimize their rights to live in the Western Hemisphere. By having a legally acknowledged predecessor of their race in the New World, they seemed to believe, their later “re-immigration” might give them claims at least equal to those of Native Americans.


Federal Magistrate John Jelderks heard arguments for and against dismissal of the case in 1997, and ordered the government to vacate its initial decision and properly follow the procedures of NAGPRA—that is, methodically attempt to determine affiliation. Working with non-plaintiff anthropologists, many of them approved by the native governments, the federal government conducted its own studies of the skeleton, local archaeology, folklore, and language. Ultimately, the decision, for affiliation to the claimant tribes, came down to folklore. The case then went back to court.

Legal arguments hinged on the interpretation of the NAGPRA legislation. Plaintiffs asserted, among other things, that Kennewick Man was not Native American under the statute; and if he were Native American, he could not be considered affiliated with any of the claimant tribes. Identity as Native American was the threshold issue. According to the statute, they noted, the term refers to “a tribe, people, or culture that is indigenous to the United States” (emphasis added). The law refers to the present, not all time. Living more than four hundred generations ago, Kennewick Man could not be a member of a present-day group, nor connected to them in any clear ancestor–descendant relationship. For its part, the government asserted the law meant that any person who predated Christopher Columbus’s arrival is Native American. Tribes and Native American rights groups, who entered the case as amicus curiae, asserted verb tense did not matter; one never loses one’s indigenousness.

Ultimately, the court found in favor of the plaintiffs, ordering the government to enter into negotiations with them over the timing and content of studies. The government and tribes appealed the case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which unanimously upheld the initial ruling.

Studies by the plaintiffs’ study team took place in June 2005 and again in February 2006, with more investigations planned. Kennewick Man is said to have been a well-muscled middle-aged man around 5 feet 9 inches tall who had survived head, chest, shoulder, and pelvic injuries before his death and possible burial. As with most of his North American contemporaries, his physical characteristics make him distinct from all modern “races.”

Kennewick Man was a case of confused identity. The legal interpretation of Kennewick Man’s identity hinged strictly on the reading of legal language. Kennewick Man was not “Native American” under the law because no cultural or biological link between him and any modern tribe could reasonably be made. The decision had nothing to do with an assignment of his “race.” To the anthropologists who studied him, his distinctive phenotypic characteristics raised the intriguing question about greater diversity among America’s earliest inhabitants, who arrived long before present-day “races” had evolved. Nonetheless, in the popular culture, the mistaken idea of Kennewick Man as evidence that Caucasians were the first Americans has taken a firm hold. Like the Asatru, many white Americans seemingly seek a moral right to live in America at a time when they feel embattled as illegitimate usurpers.

SEE ALSO Folk Classification.


Chatters, James C. 2001. Ancient Encounters: Kennewick Man and the First Americans. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Cunningham, Richard B. 2005. Archaeology, Relics, and the Law, 2nd ed. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.

“Kennewick Man Virtual Interpretive Center.” Tricity Herald. Available from

Thomas, David Hurst. 2000. Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity. New York: Basic.

James C. Chatters

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Kennewick Man

The remains of an ancient human found along a river in Kennewick, Washington, in 1996 set off a heated debate about the ownership and future of the skeleton. Scientists argued that the skeleton, dubbed Kennewick Man, could provide new information about human migration in North America, while Native Americans claimed him as an ancestor and wanted to bury him according to their rites. Forensic anthropological findings and cultural evidence were presented in court procedures over the course of nine years while the fate of the Kennewick Man was debated.

The story of Kennewick Man began in July 1996, when two college students watching hydroplane races found a human skeleton along the Columbia River. The young men turned the remains over to local police, who realized that they were probably very old. The bones were then given to forensic anthropologist James Chatters for evaluation. Chatters reconstructed the skeleton, which was 8090% complete. He determined that it was from a man who was probably five feet nine or 10 inches and about 4050 years old when he died. He showed little evidence of arthritis, indicating that he wasn't used to carrying heavy weights and that he might have been a wandering hunter. Dental examinations showed that the skull contained 30 of the 32 teeth and that they were in good shape, indicating that he probably had a diet that included lots of soft foods like meat. He was taller and thinner than most ancient Native Americans and the back of his skull was not flattened from a cradleboard as is commonly observed in skeletons of ancient Native Americans. In addition, the man had a stone spear point lodged in his pelvis and there was evidence of severe trauma to his rib cage that probably limited the use of his arm. Using computerized tomography (CT), Chatters determined that the spear point was serrated and leaf-shaped and typical of the types of spears used between 85004500 years ago. He hypothesized that the skeleton was either from a European pioneer who had been attacked by native people using stone-age weapons or from an ancient human. Chatters sent pieces of the bones to a laboratory for carbon dating, which determined that the age of the skeleton was between 9,2009,400 years old, making the skeleton one of the oldest, and most complete, ever found in North America.

Once the age of the skeleton was determined, several groups came forward, vying for control of the remains. A group of five Native American tribes in the region, the Umatilla, the Yakama, the Nez Perce, the Wanapum, and the Colville, wanted to accord the remains the same rites given to any Native American, namely a speedy burial. They cited the legal authority of the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGRA), which requires the return of American Indian remains to tribes. As news of the unique find spread throughout the scientific community, a coalition of eight anthropologists and archaeologists petitioned for their right to study the ancient remains prior to burial. The scientists believed that study of the Kennewick Man could reveal important information about early human migrations into North America. The Native American group believed that any manipulation of the remains would show enormous disrespect to the dead and vehemently opposed scientific investigation of the skeleton, which they called the Ancient One. Because some of the features of the Kennewick Man, such as his height and the shape of his skull, indicated that he might not be of Native American ancestry but rather of European descent, a group of people representing the ancient Norse religion called Asatru also petitioned the court for the right to the remains.

The ensuing legal battle raged for more than nine years. One of the key questions of debate in the courts concerned whether or not the skeleton was subject to NAGRA. NAGRA requires that all Native American remains be returned to the tribe for burial, however it was unclear if the Kennewick man was of Native American ancestry. Eventually the court ruled that some scientific study was required in order to establish the origin of the skeleton and between 1998 and 2000, the Department of the Interior coordinated these studies. A 1999 physical examination of the bones established that the Kennewick Man shared most physical characteristics with people from Southern Asia. In April 2000, samples of bone from the Kennewick Man's skeleton were removed and sent to two different laboratories for DNA testing. Because of the age of the bones, it was impossible to extract sufficient DNA for analysis and the results of the study were inconclusive. After a series of appeals by all sides, in February 2004, a U.S. Federal judge ruled that it was impossible to prove that the Kennewick Man's ancestry was culturally affiliated to any of the Native American tribes in the region and gave scientists the right to go forward with their investigation. In 2005, plans were outlined for study three-phase study involving as many as 23 different scientists.

see also Anthropology; Anthropometry; Mitochondrial DNA analysis; Odontology; Skull.

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Kennewick Man

The dead have power to create controversy in the world of the living. One example involves a 9,500 year-old skeleton, one of the best-preserved early human fossils found in North America, whose discovery triggered a bitter debate over who owns America's past.

Found accidentally in the Columbia River of eastern Washington in July 1996, was a nearly complete skeleton that showed traces of a hard life: a fractured elbow, broken ribs, a possible head injury, and a spear wound in the pelvis. The cause of his death is uncertain, as is the issue of whether he was interred or naturally buried. The man's skull, facial characteristics, and teeth are distinct from those of all modern peoples, including American Indians, but most similar to Polynesians and the Japanese Ainu. These differences, which are also seen in other American skeletons older than 9,000 years, raise the possibility that more than one wave of early immigrants peopled America, and that American Indians were not the western hemisphere's first inhabitants.

The skeleton quickly became the center of a political battle pitting conservative Indian tribes and the Native American Identity Movement against the interests of science and the human community at large. Upon announcement of the discovery, leaders of five Pacific Northwest Indian tribes claimed the bones under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA). The U.S. government, which owned the skeletal remains, agreed to turn them over to the tribes, rebuffing a request by scientists for the opportunity to study this rare find. Eight prominent anthropologists sued to stop reburial, bringing the first test case of the NAGPRA. The case ignited a conflict between religion, the political position of Native American activists, and the public's right to scientific knowledge about the ancient history of its homeland.

On the religious front, the tribes believe that ancestors' remains must be returned to the earth lest their spirits be offended and wreak havoc among the living. Because the tribes' present-day religion holds that they were created near where the skeleton was found, they insist that Kennewick Man must be their ancestor. To deny their religious claims, they say, is to disrespect and weaken their culture.

However, the religious claim is the less important one from the perspective of the Native American Identity Movement, which has as its goal the assertion of tribal rights to land and resources. In the 1970s this movement selected American Indian skeletons kept in museums as an issue of debate, maintaining that placing their skeletons in museum displays compromised their human rights. Kennewick Man and the few other early skeletons are particularly important because they suggest the chilling possibility that Indian people were not the first to occupy the Americas. If the U.S. government acquiesces to the tribes' claim to these most ancient remains, however, it affirms the movement's claim that Indian people were the first occupants of the American continent and supports the tribes' original right to land and resources. The movement is concerned that proof of an earlier people preceding them will weaken its claims.

For the scientific community, the skeleton is a story about the life and death of an ancient American and a window into the history of the human species. Are the most ancient human fossils and artifacts the property of a few or should they be considered the heritage of all peoples? The answer, scientists feel, has global implications for their quest to understand the history of the human species.

See also: Grief and Mourning in Cross-Cultural Perspective; Human Remains


Chatters, James C. Ancient Encounters: Kennewick Man and the First Americans. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

Chatters, James C. "The Recovery and First Analysis of an Early Holocene Human Skeleton from Kennewick Washington." American Antiquity 65, no. 2 (2000):291316.

Thomas, David H. Skull Wars. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

Preston, Douglas. "The Lost Man." The New Yorker, 19 June 1997, 7081.