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 Athena Review, Vol. 4, No. 2


Kennewick Man Studied At Last


          Nine years after its initial discovery, followed by a long series of court battles, a group of scientists have finally been able to undertake a detailed examination of the ancient American remains known as Kennewick Man. The saga began when a human skull was found in July, 1996 along the banks of the Columbia River near Kennewick, Washington. Originally identified by forensic anthropologist James Chatters as having Caucasoid features, the Kennewick remains were at first thought to be those of a recent European male. When the postcranial bones were examined, however, a projectile point in the pelvic region was identified as belonging to the Early Archaic period (ca. 9500-8000 BP). This date was confirmed when a metacarpal bone submitted by Chatters was radiocarbon dated to 9300 BP. Kennewick Man was thus one of the oldest human skeletons ever found in North America (AR 1,4:7). The early date and a combination of skull features, not typical in modern Native Americans, make the skeleton of great scientific interest in understanding migrations to the New World 20,000-5,000 years ago.

          Shortly thereafter, local Native American tribes demanded that the bones be declared ancestral remains and reburied. Supported by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the tribes sought reburial under the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Under the act's provisions, any human bones found in North America that predate AD 1492 (the arrival of the first Europeans) must be returned to local Native American tribes. Despite protests by scientists, the site where the skeleton was found was buried by the Corps under tons of rocks, precluding any future investigations. While Kennewick man was under lock and key, eight prominent scientists, including Dennis Stanford and Douglas Owsley of the Smithsonian, C. Loring Brace of the University of Michigan, and the late Robson Bonnichson of the Center for the Study of the First Americans, led the fight to study his remains.

          In the winter of 1999, the bones were transferred to the Burke Museum at the University of Washington. A panel of experts selected by the government, including Francis McManamon, chief archaeologist of the National Park Service, were permitted to make a "non-destructive" study to determine a tribal affiliation (AR 2,2). Later that year, samples from Kennewick Man's tibia and toe were sent for radiocarbon dating, resulting in a verification of the earlier date of around 9,200 BP.

          The decision by Interior officials to proceed with DNA testing in 2000 was opposed by the Confederated tribes of the Colville Reservation, who stated that such tests violated their beliefs (AR 2,3). These tests, in any case, proved to be inconclusive, and the Interior Department, relying on provisions of NAGPRA, stated that a cultural affiliation existed between the fossils and the local tribes, paving the way for their repatriation. The eight scientists contested this ruling, and the case was reactivated in October 2000 (AR 2,4). In 2002, a court decision found in favor of the scientists, but was appealed by both the government and four northwest coast tribes (AR 3,3).

          Legal skirmishing finally came to a halt in 2004 when an appeals court ruled in favor of the scientists. In July 2005, a dozen or so researchers, including Douglas Owsley of the original eight plaintiffs, were permitted to study Kennewick Man's remains. These specialists, limited to an initial two week hands-on period, worked with a new plastic model of the skull and postcranial skeleton made from a high-powered CT scan of the original bones. According to Dr. Owsley, researchers can now determine how and when the skeleton's bone fractures occurred using a process known as a taphonomic analysis. This research should determine whether or not Kennewick Man was intentionally buried. There may also be a revision of his age at death.

          Scientists were permitted to remove small fragments of bone which are being submitted to chemical testing by Thomas Stafford of the University of Wisconsin. Additional study of the bones is scheduled for early 2006. Information gathered during this intensive study could eventually reveal details of Kennewick man's diet, age, injuries, cause of death, and his relation to evolutionary history.

          On July 28, 2005, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs convened a hearing on a proposed amendment which would change NAGPRA's definition of "Native American" to "of, or relating to, a people, culture, or tribe, that is or was indigenous to the United States. Arguments were heard for and against this change. In a surprising turn of events, the Department of the Interior, which had been on the losing side of the Kennewick decision, came out in favor of retaining NAGPRA as currently written. A statement released by the Department stated that remains not affiliated with any existing Native American tribe should be available for scientific research.

[Dalton, R. 2005 "Scientists finally get their hands on Kennewick man," Nature 436:16; Lepper, B.T., 2005, "Dept. of the Interior Stands up for Science," Mammoth Trumpet, 20,4. McManamon, F.P. 2004. "Kennewick Man". Natl. Park Service, Archaeology and Ethnography Program at http://www.cr.nps.gov/aad/kennewick/; Kennewick Man Virtual Interpretive Center: http//:www. kennewick-man/kman/news/story/6685243p-657118c.html; Science 309: 696]


This article appears on pages 4-5 in the Recent Finds in Archaeology of Vol.4 No.2 of Athena Review. The complete text may be obtained in the printed version of the magazine.


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