‘Kennewick Man’ was Native American, study suggests

Umatilla people, one of the tribes fighting to bury the Kennewick Man. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/wikimedia

When a nearly complete 9,000-year old human skeleton washed out of a Columbia River cutbank at Kennewick in Washington State in 1996, archaeologists hailed it as the most important find of the century. But the discovery sparked a fierce legal battle between scientists and local Native Americans about Kennewick Man’s ancestry and what to do with the remains that has been raging ever since. A new study that will further fuel the debate shows that he was, most likely, Native American.

When the skeleton was first found, many Native Americans denounced the scientific studies as a desecration and demanded that “The Ancient One”, as they call it, be immediately reburied without analysis. An acrimonious and highly public argument ensured, complete with multi-million dollar lawsuit.

Scientific studies over the past decade concluded that Kennewick Man probably descended from an ancient population that today survives as Japan’s Ainu people and the Polynesian people. The implication, of course, was that the Americas were first inhabited by Caucasian people and that Native Americans came later.

The new study turns this argument on its head. A broad coalition of scientists present the first genomic sequence of Kennewick Man, suggesting that American Indian people have been in the US for at least eight millennia. These results indicate that not only that Kennewick Man was a Native American, but that his mostly likely descendants include the members of the Colville tribe, living today less than 200 miles from the Kennewick burial site.

Rewriting history

The new evidence will continue the controversy. The initial bio-archaeological analysis concluded that the individual was a Caucasoid male, about 45 years old at death. He’d suffered multiple wounds in life, including a hip injury that left some sort of projectile still embedded. When a CT scan showed that the projectile was a stone spear point, a small bone sample was submitted for radiocarbon dating. Three weeks later, the lab produced results that would rock New World archaeology: The man had died 9,400 years ago – making Kennewick Man one of the most complete ancient skeletons in the Americas.

On the basis of scarce and uncertain evidence, archaeologists and journalists alike began framing fresh theories about the earliest Americans. Who had first populated the continent? Had there been a race war? As theories proliferated, archaeologists seemed to agree on only one point: Kennewick was a monumental find that must be studied extensively by specialists. As the scientific teams geared up, the already dramatic story of Kennewick Man took an extraordinary turn.

Five days after the startling results of the radiocarbon tests were made public, the Army Corps of Engineers announced its intent to repatriate the bones to an alliance of five north-west tribes: the Umatilla, Yakima, Nez Perce, Wanapum and Colville tribes. The tribal coalition rejected the scientist’s name, preferring the name Oyt.pa.ma.na.tit.tite (The Ancient One).

Ainu people. Bronislaw Pilsudski

They argued that scientific probing and destruction of human bones was offensive, sacrilegious and illegal under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990. They demanded that the bones be immediately surrendered, without analysis. Armand Minthorn, an Umatilla leader said: “Our oral history goes back ten thousand years. We know how time began and how Indian people were created. They can say whatever they want, the scientists. They are being disrespectful.”

But many archaeologists countered that Kennewick Man could not be affiliated with any tribe. Eight prominent archaeologists and physical anthropologists filed a lawsuit in federal district court to stop the transfer to the tribes and obtain access to study the skeleton. After years of legal wrangling, the Ninth District court concluded in 2005 that Kennewick Man was not a Native American and found in favour of the plaintiffs, permitting scientific study and awarding more than US$2m in attorney’s fees and costs to the plaintiffs.

For nearly a decade, a broad coalition of scientists intensively studied the bones of Kennewick Man, presently curated at Seattle’s University of Washington Burke Museum. Their conclusions generally supported the initial analysis: Kennewick Man was not a Native American and hence could not be closely affiliated to any modern tribe, including those today living today in the north-west. He was more closely related to Ainu and Polynesians.

Modern science to the rescue

Despite several efforts to recover genetic materials from Kennewick Man, none were successful – until now. The new study published the genomic sequence of Kennewick Man based on DNA extracted from a hand bone. This is a crucial step because earlier analyses of Kennewick Man employed cranial morphology as a genetic proxy, assuming skull shape is both highly heritable and selectively neutral.

But this approach, grounded in the tradition of 19th-century skull science, does not represent mainstream thinking in bio-archaeology. The new study relies on voluminous experimental, epidemological and skeletal biology records that demonstrate the profound influence of dietary shift and food consistency on craniofacial architecture. Skull shape does not map an unchanging genetic highway into the past because bone is a remarkably dynamic medium.

There also important implications for the relationship between scientists and the Native American Tribes. The new DNA results indicate that some members of the Colville tribe are direct descendants of the population that likely included Kennewick Man (or at least his close relatives). How ironic is it that in 1996, the Colville were among the five north-west tribes protesting against scientific study of The Ancient One. Nearly two decades later, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation were instrumental in supporting the new genomic study of Kennewick Man, even to the point of tribal members contributing their own DNA for the project.

The chaos surrounding the discovery and analysis of Kennewick Man has become a negative role model for the practice of 21st-century archaeology. That descendant communities get involved in scientific study is today commonplace in American archaeology and it is heartening to see the results of this sea change reflected in the study of Kennewick Man/The Ancient One.

The next step will also be controversial, as new DNA studies will be debated and deconstructed to determine the ultimate destination of Kennewick Man. Should his bones still be curated for further study? Can the Colville tribe prove affiliation and request return through the NAGPRA law? Or could an innovative collaborative solution be crafted to resolve the continuing skull wars?