Keys to History: The Story of Kennewick Man

Who owns history? It is a highly disputed question that has no simple answer. It is a question that not only affects our view of the past, but also shapes the way we look to build our future. But our historical lens is often clouded. Even in today’s modern world, our opinion of history is completely bound to the knowledge we have available. Scientific findings, ancient stories, and a variety of other factors each uniquely contribute to this pool of collective knowledge that is so important to society.

At what point, though, do we put the pursuit of knowledge before ethics, and violate our own universal mores to provide a more complete view of history? When does the pursuit of science overrule religion? Both sides of this debate are “concerned with the human identity and defining our place in the universe, but the methods employed in achieving these goals are often diametrically opposed” (Cryne 2009:100). Neither side is wrong, and “both pursuits are invaluable to the lives of human beings both in the past and today. Our society can ill afford to reject one over the other, and so a conflict is born, and our government is forced to make choices about priorities” (Cryne 2009:100).

This existential dilemma is at the core of the controversy concerning NAGPRA, The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. This federal law governs the rights of Native Americans and scientists to access and handle anthropological remains. Since “its inception, NAGPRA has notably affected the archaeological profession, both by requiring increased interaction with extant Native American groups and by limiting access to certain materials traditionally available for scientific study (Bruning 2006:502). “Despite such effects…most dispositions have been resolved without the need to resort to legal actions, and many positive relationships have been forged between archaeologists and tribes as a result of the increased number of collaborations” (Swidler et al. 1997, Zimmerman et al. 2003). However, as is with most governing laws, a single incident has had the potential to forever damage the integrity and effectiveness of NAGPRA.

That “incident” occurred on July 28, 1996. It would go on to “call into question NAGPRA’s ability to balance tribal, museum, and archaeological interests in ancient human remains” and challenge that highly disputed question of “who owns history?” (Hurst 2000:908).

The Discovery

On “July 28, 1996, two innocent college students discovered a skeleton in Kennewick, Washington” (Weiss 2001:14). This “skeleton, complete with a skull and some other bones that were eroding out of the banks of the Columbia River,” quite quickly turned from “no big deal” to controversial, national attention (Walker and Jones 2000: 907). The two kids called the police, who, in turn, “brought in the Benton County coroner, Floyd Johnson. Johnson, who was puzzled by the skull, turned to Jim Chatters” (Preston 1). Chatters, a local, forensic anthropologist, arrived “within a matter of hours after the discovery. Somehow, he was permitted to take the bones home for further investigation” (Walker and Jones 2000: 907). With little to no concrete evidence, having just had a few initial observations, Chatters made a bold assertion. He, along with a few other independent archaeologists, claimed that the face of the skeleton “had certain Caucasoid, or European features of the skull, which suggested to them that the ancestry of Kennewick Man might be quite different from that of other documented Paleo-Indian discoveries” (Swedlund and Anderson 1999:571). Chatters is on record saying that “on the physical characteristics alone, he [Kennewick Man] could fit on the streets of Stockholm without causing any kind of notice” (Preston 1997:73). This daring assertion, if ever proved true, could have huge implications. It would rewrite the history books, and even serve as evidence that Europeans, specifically Caucasians, had been inhabiting North America for just as long, if not longer, than the Native Tribes had.

Throughout scientific history, this type of reporting, in which the discoverer jumps to quick conclusions, is traditionally dismissed. But the evolution of journalism has convoluted the space with incentives and biases that often mislead the facts. “Beyond the important considerations of data, evidence, and interpretations, this change in the nature of reporting adds an entirely new dimension to research,” one that can alter the way discoveries appear in the media (Swedlund and Anderson 1999:571). Chatters finding was not a matter of science or faith; it really was an opinion, subject to human discrimination.

Furthermore, it was “irresponsible scholarship for an archaeologist to simply look at a few bones and scientifically claim they are “Caucasoid” or unaffiliated with any Native American tribe” (Hurst 2000:908). The question arises: what was Chatters’ motivation/implicit bias? In hindsight, answers do arise. Many now believe that his bold, “initial claim was really an attempt to limit the effects of NAGPRA, thus supporting requests for scientific testing” (Hurst 2000: 908).

If it not for the time period, many present day scientists and archaeologists would also trace the bias of this discovery back to racist roots. It was common, especially during the 18th and 19th centuries, for “race to appear evident in peoples’ actions and writings” in archaeology (Gosden 2006:6). “Anthropologists and collectors back then [frequently] looted fresh Native American graves and burial platforms, dug up corpses and even decapitated dead Indians lying on the field of battle” (Preston 2). What made this instance different? The consequences were as high stakes as could be. If the skeleton had been successfully traced back to European heritage, this claim would greatly affect our nation’s history and, in doing so, suggest a pardon to many of the sins and wrongdoings that the initial European settlers committed. Luckily, there were two sides to this discussion.

Initial Sparks

Chatters’ initial observation ignited a conversation that would consume the archaeological world for decades to follow. A few weeks after the finding, an investigation of the skeleton was launched. “Through geological examination of the soil and radiocarbon dating of the skeleton, Kennewick Man was determined to be approximately 9,000 years old” (Schneider 1998). “An age of 9300 years had been associated with the skeleton on the basis of a carbon-14 age determination” (Taylor 1998:1171). This was an extremely important discovery and “stunning news to the entire community. It meant that [at the time], Kennewick Man was one of only about six or seven well-preserved remains that old ever found in North America” (Weiss 2001:14). With this important finding, came tremendous pressure from both the scientific and Native American community for the government to make the right decision in handling the precious body.

The primary issue, as is common with most ethical discussions, was that there was no universally “right decision” that the government could make. There was only a “least wrong” option. For the scientific community, the next step was clear: send the skeleton for further research, that way society can progress as we can gain a better understanding of our species’ history and clues about our evolution.

However, NAGPRA, backed by the support of the Native tribes, said otherwise. The next step was not supposed to be the scientific community’s decision to make. “Under the provision of the act, Kennewick Man could be reburied within ninety days after an initial examination of the remains if any federally recognized Native American tribe claimed affiliation, whether biological, cultural, or geographic” (Weiss 2001:14). Aware of the act, a group of tribes from the Columbia River Area immediately rose to the call and filed to claim the skeleton as one of their own ancestors.

In analyzing history, we often look for the why. And so we ask, why did the Native Americans care so much about this body? The primary reason is that they had been deeply disturbed by how the scientists were treating such a sacred aspect of their history. The bones were being treated like pieces of equipment, rather than crucial clues to history. This was not only disrespectful, but also spoke volumes to rising tension between the Native Americans and the United States’ legislation. The second motivation for instant action was perhaps out of fear; the Native Americans did not want technology and science to intervene in their lives. For the most part, these tribes just wanted to be left alone with nature intact.

Anthropologists and scientists who deeply opposed the Tribes’ movement filed a law suit during the 30-day waiting period mandated by NAGPRA before the reburial process could begin. This was an effort to blockade the skeleton from going out of their reach. And this time, their reason for doing so was transparent: “if Kennewick man were reburied, the loss to science would be incalculable and that the skeleton had the potential to change the way we view the entire peopling of the Americas” (Hunt 1999:322). “When word got out that the eight scientists had sued the government, criticism poured in, even from colleagues. The head of the Society for American Archaeology tried to get them to drop the lawsuit. Some felt it would interfere with the relationships they had built with the Native American tribes” (Preston 1). During this period, the skeleton was locked away in a vault, first at Battelle, and then at the Burke Museum of Natural History at the University of Washington in Seattle, pending the outcome for the right to study these remains (Science, 1997:173). “But, it was being “badly mishandled and stored in substandard and unsafe conditions. In the storage area where the bones were (and are) being kept at the Burke, records show that there have been wide swings in temperature and humidity that, the scientists say, have damaged the specimen. At one point, large portions of both femurs disappeared” (Preston 1). All of this led to a controversial depiction of the skeleton in the media, one that outraged numerous stakeholders.

As a result, when the outcome of the lawsuit was released, it grabbed national spotlight. The verdict favored the scientific community. The judges were persuaded by the scientists’ cause and agreed to overrule NAGPRA, stalling the burial and granting a team of government appointed archaeologists, geologists, and forensic anthropologists time to study Kennewick Man. The court, on record, ruled that “the bones were not related to any living tribe: thus NAGPRA did not apply” (Preston 1). This was not the conclusion of Kennewick Man’s case. Rather, it was just the beginning of what was to come.

Years of Dormancy

Post-trial, the scientists, who won the case, presented a plan of study to the Army Corps. After several years of negotiation, the plan was approved and the team of scientists was granted 16 days to examine Kennewick Man. In July of 2005 and February of 2006, almost ten years after the skeleton was found, the team finally had the opportunity to take a closer look at the body.

“Twenty-two scientists scrutinized the almost 300 bones and fragments as they uncovered the secrets behind Kennewick Man’s past” (Preston 2). From these in-depth studies, many questions found answers. “We now have an idea of who Kennewick Man was, how he lived, what he did, and where he traveled,” shares Douglas Owsley, a physical anthropologist from the Smithsonian Institution who led the study. But was this really enough? Even after this technological analysis, the existential question still remained: who is Kennewick Man related to today? Who does he belong to? While each scientist had his or her own independent theory of the skeleton’s relation, there was no clear consensus. Science, in this case, had failed to answer the question that everyone, especially the Native American tribes, really wanted to hear.

The result of inconclusive testing, much to the dismay of the Natives, was not to return the body “home” to the Columbia River for reburial. Rather, the bones were placed in secure storage, at the Burke Museum, controlled by the Army Corps. And since then, they have sat there, lying dormant in the basement of this museum. Native Americans would come visit “the Ancient One,” as they called him, several times throughout the year in honor of his burial. But it was not the same. Their history had been disrespected and stripped from their culture. The scientific community was not happy either. The army corps continued to deny their requests to conduct numerous tests and chemical analyses on the body, leaving them with a bunch of unanswered questions. No party seemed content with how this was going. Naturally, we must ask: Who has a right to be upset? Whose history is it to control? Who is in the wrong?

It is important to always consider all perspectives when analyzing a fragment of history. Many would point the initial blame for this situation towards the scientific community for not only overstepping their boundaries as self-proclaimed testers of history, but also for their disrespect of the entire Native American culture in pursuit of their own self-interest. But the Columbia River tribes did have a natural right to be upset. From their perspective, a remarkable, one of a kind skeleton was found in their territory, and taken, unlawfully, from their people. Fast forward a decade or so, and not much had really changed. They were still without their skeleton, the Ancient One. There was still a great deal of uncertainty. And there was still no answer as to why NAGPRA did not hold true in this case.

Let us remember that this incident is not particularly unique. Recent estimates suggest that the “number of Native American remains held in the collections of U.S. museums number about half a million. And “according to a recent survey, over 116,000 sets of Native American human remains and nearly one million burial objects are considered by museum scientists to be culturally unaffiliated, meaning that no specific tribal origin has yet been assigned to these sacred objects. Without affiliation, these bones are technically not eligible for return until a firm cultural connection to living ancestors can be established. While many anthropologists and museum professionals posit that great care must be taken in determining the proper cultural affiliation, others charge this rule has been used as a loophole to guard certain museum collections from repatriation to Native peoples” (Redman 1).

The scientific method tells us that these tribes should continue asking questions. We must always ask why and continue to test the uncertain. This holds true, especially in the case of Kennewick man, where the community knew that not enough research had been done to really prove anything of fact. We cannot, however, blame the scientists for not initially finding any concrete, ancestral evidence. The purpose of science is not to prove a confirming hypothesis; it is only to reveal an apparent truth.

And, as luck had it, the truth, packed with more evidence, was still to come.

Uncovering Answers

Recent advances in technology have helped us bring clarity and removed biases from the situation. With permission from the Army Corps, as well many of the Columbia River Tribes, the first genome analysis on the skeleton, published in 2015, brought us new light. “Contrary to previous results based on the size and shape of the skeleton, the DNA analysis, performed by Eske Willersley, a geneticist from the University of Copenhagen and a co-author on this new study, suggests that Kennewick Man is more closely related to modern Native Americans than any other population of modern humans. The results show, convincingly, that Kennewick is a member of the same broad population as most present-day Native Americans,” says David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard University who was not affiliated with the study. “Now that the Ancient One has been proven to be Native American, the five groups who fought so hard to reclaim him will join together to bury him at an undisclosed location. As of now, the skeleton has been kept in a secure location at the Burke museum” (Thompson 1). Very recent Legislation, just passed through Congress in December of 2016, “enabled the transfer of the ancient skeleton from the federal government to Native-American tribes,” which will expedite the process (Clarridge 1).

A Lot to Learn

Since his uncovering in the late 1990s, Kennewick Man has been “at the nexus of a scientific and political firestorm” (Thompson 1). His discovery not only ignited a conversation about archaeology and science, but also brought about a discussion of ethics and our history. Debate is one of the best ways to open up new perspectives, and continue to learn about ourselves as a species as we evolve.

One big point in our evolution has been learning to better leverage technologies to solve problems across all industries and spaces. Archaeology, as highlighted in this example, is a space that can largely benefit from a great increase in the accuracy, speed, and accessibility of modern technologies. Advancements in dating technologies and DNA testing have greatly impacted the way we analyze our pasts.

On a broader level, using technology to reach back further into history can also help us build compromises and agreements in the present and strategize about our futures. As we continue to grow, we will continue to see the role of technology expand. It will become our ally in solving mysteries and deciphering clues, and ultimately lead us to a clearer view of the past.

A big benefit we will see from technology is the removal of human influence. This influence, or human bias, is one of the biggest problems that we see in our portrayals of history. Throughout time, we have seen numerous groups infuse history with their own twists and turns to make themselves appear more prominent for some self-fulfilling desire. Inaccurate, yes. But there are much wider implications that can leave a lot of damage on our history. Biases, for any multitude of reasons, proliferate the telling of lies and can lead to cultural shifts or, in the worst cases, forms of hatred against groups. With adoption of technology, we can remove biases from our work and representation of the past, and focus on the facts of history.

As we conclude, we circle back to that initial question: who owns history? Though complex, the answer has a simple core message. It’s that whoever holds the keys to history, those who best understand it, are the ones who can reap the most power from it. As citizens of the earth, we all have a right to the collective knowledge base that represents our pasts. It is our duty, as a part of man-kind, to strive and thirst for the pursuit of this knowledge. While doing so, we must also respect and uphold ethical and moral standards. This is a fine line to walk. But to not entangle ourselves too closely, we must do our best to remove biases from all that is science, and root our claims in facts, not opinions. In the case of Kennewick man, and so many skeletons like him, bias from both sides got in the way of the truth.

History, and the practice of analyzing it, is not about confirming an idea. It is not about falsifying data to match a hypothesis. It is about learning more about our pasts. We know there are many ways to go about learning, many of which do not include disrespecting culture. As we evolve as a species, we will continue to find clues, leading us closer to understanding our history. It is our duty to employ science, while respecting humanity, so that we can best make decisions to advance our futures.


Works Cited

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Clarridge, Christine. “Legislation Enables Transfer of Kennewick Man to Tribes.” The Seattle Times. Seattle Times, 11 Dec. 2016. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

Cryne, Julia A. “NAGPRA REVISITED: A TWENTY-YEAR REVIEW OF REPATRIATION EFFORTS.” American Indian Law Review, vol. 34, no. 1, 2009, pp. 99–122. www.jstor.org/stable/25684264.

Gosden, Chris. “Race and Racism in Archaeology: Introduction.” World Archaeology, vol. 38, no. 1, 2006, pp. 1–7. www.jstor.org/stable/40023591.

Preston, Douglas. “The Kennewick Man Finally Freed to Share His Secrets.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, Sept. 2014. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

Redman, Samuel J. “How Many Human Skeletons Are in U.S. Museums?” History News Network. History News Network, 6 Mar. 2016. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

Swedlund, Alan, and Duane Anderson. “Gordon Creek Woman Meets Kennewick Man: New Interpretations and Protocols Regarding the Peopling of the Americas.” American Antiquity, vol. 64, no. 4, 1999, pp. 569–576. www.jstor.org/stable/2694205.

Taylor, R. E. et al. “Radiocarbon Dates of Kennewick Man.” Science, vol. 280, no. 5367, 1998, pp. 1171–1173. www.jstor.org/stable/2896031.

Thompson, Helen. “Genome Analysis Links Kennewick Man to Native Americans.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, 18 June 2015. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

Walker, Deward E., and Peter N. Jones. “Other Perspectives on the Kennewick Man Controversy.” American Anthropologist, vol. 102, no. 4, 2000, pp. 907–910. www.jstor.org/stable/684229.

Weiss, Elizabeth. “Kennewick Man’s Funeral: The Burying of Scientific Evidence.” Politics and the Life Sciences, vol. 20, no. 1, 2001, pp. 13–18. www.jstor.org/stable/4236616.


Originally published at Jordan Gonen.