On July 28, 1996, two participants in an annual hydroplane race on the Columbia River found a skull in a local reservoir outside of Kennewick, Washington. After it was determined the remains were historical rather than a relatively fresh death, the skull was passed on to archeologist James Chatter, who instantly knew he had something interesting. In just under a dozen trips back to the reservoir, Chatters collected 350 pieces of bone—many of them fractured into several pieces—with only the sternum and several small hand and foot bones never recovered.
Chatters originally estimated the skeletal remains to have come from the 19th century based on damage and bone weathering. He also posited the remains were from a right-handed male of roughly 40–55 years of age, 5’7” to 5’9”, and of a slight build but with significant musculature—this was a man used to hard physical labour. He’d also had a hard life, having five broken ribs that had healed during his life, and two shallow depression fractures in his skull. A 3.1” cascade point—a Native American pointed projectile that was likely the piercing end of an arrow or spear—was found lodged deep in the man’s hip. The bone had partially remodeled over it, indicating it had been there for some time during his life. Radioisotope analysis of the bones revealed the man had consumed a diet of marine animals for several decades of his life. He had also consumed glacier melt water. Since at that time, the only glacier melt water to be found was in Alaska, this suggested the man was a coastal traveler. It was determined that he had been purposefully buried, lying on his back, his arms at his sides, palm down.
Most important for the unforeseen decades-long legal battle hidden just over the horizon, Chatters documented that he felt the skeleton portrayed Caucasoid traits and was lacking in Native American characteristics, marking the man as European in origin. So while interesting, the remains appeared to be that of a European explorer in the newly opened American West and beyond.
However, the story radically changed when a fragment of bone was sent for carbon-14 testing for a more accurate age determination. Shockingly, the results dated the skeletal remains to between 8,900–9,000 years old dating to nearly 7,000 B.C. This put an entirely new spin on the skull appraisal: Skulls older than 8,000 years do not have as much similarity to modern skull morphology, so a comparison to modern races using present day characteristic data points could not be made. The newly determined age of the skull, paired with the evidence of an ancient Native American weapon gave the local tribes everything they needed to declare the remains to be Native American in origin and to ask for their return. The ‘Ancient One’ deserved to be re-interred with his people as per the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), rather than be displayed under lights and glass in a museum.
Because the remains were found on federal land under the jurisdiction of the United States Army Corp of Engineers, they remained in their care while the legal aspects of the case were examined. A first attempt to run DNA analysis on the remains early in this century was unsuccessful due to insufficient technology of the time. However, as DNA technology improved by leaps and bounds in the following decade to the extent that we can now sequence the 14th century bubonic plague and the 16,000 year old woolly mammoth genome, a new attempt was made to sequence the genome of Kennewick Man. This time scientists were successful and it was determined that Kennewick Man was more closely related to Native American tribes than to any European lineages. In fact, researchers determined that both Kennewick Man and modern Native Americans evolved from a common ancestor who lived approximately 9,200 years ago.
Last month these DNA results were confirmed by researchers at the University of Chicago, and the Army Corps of Engineers recently announced that they would release the remains for burial. Now all that remains to be determined is who will welcome the Ancient One. Five separate local tribes—the Colville, Yakama, Umatilla, Nez Perce, and Wanapum—have all laid claim to the remains. For the time being, the remains will remain in storage at the Burke Museum in Seattle, but there is hope that by 2017, repatriation will be determined and the bones will be released. Kennewick Man is coming home and will be finally laid to rest with the people who came from him and his people.
Photo credit: Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution