Kennewick Man’s Genome Reignites Decades-Old Cultural Dispute

By Carl Engelking | June 18, 2015 12:00 pm
Members of the Confederated Colville tribe participate in the First Salmon Ceremony. The Colville were among five tribes who were involved in a lawsuit to obtain Kennewick Man's remains. (Credit: USDA/Flickr)

Members of the Confederated Colville tribe participate in the First Salmon Ceremony. The Colville were among five tribes who were involved in a lawsuit to obtain Kennewick Man’s remains. (Credit: USDA/Flickr)

Depending on who you talk to, Kennewick Man is either among the most important archaeological finds in North American history, or the desecrated body of a distant forebear known as “The Ancient One.”

Kennewick Man’s remains have fueled a nearly two-decade-long showdown between science and cultural rights, and now those tensions are at the forefront once again. On Thursday, archaeologists who sequenced Kennewick Man’s genome announced that he is more closely related to modern Native Americans than any other population on the planet.

The finding, scientifically speaking, appears to settle a fierce, decades-old debate among researchers regarding the man’s lineage. 

But for the Pacific Northwest tribes demanding a proper burial for Kennewick Man, the results corroborate what they already knew from their oral traditions, and may renew their call for repatriation.

History of Kennewick Man

Boaters stumbled upon Kennewick Man’s remains by accident in 1996 during a race along the Columbia River in Washington State. Subsequent radiocarbon dating efforts revealed the remains were from the Holocene Era some 8,300 to 9,200 years ago – an incredibly rare and significant find. The aged Kennewick Man was nearly a complete skeleton, and scientists knew that these bones would be key to solving a longstanding mystery as to how, when and by whom North America was first settled.

However, there was a catch.

The United States Army Corps of Engineers maintained the land where Kennewick Man was found; furthermore, that particular stretch of the Columbia also fell within the borders of sacred homeland claimed by five Pacific Northwest Native American tribes. Shortly after scientists confirmed Kennewick Man’s age, the Army Corps took possession of the skeleton and ended further studies, a move that provided the spark for a prolonged battle in the courts.

Legal Battle

In 1990 George W. Bush signed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, as reparations for the disrespectful manner in which Native American remains were treated in the past. The law serves as a means for Native Americans to gain possession of cultural items – bones included – that once belonged to their ancestors if cultural affiliation, or a connection to their lineage, could be established. NAGPRA served as the legal umbrella for the Army Corps’ seizure of Kennewick Man.

The government’s actions inspired a band of eight scientists, led by anthropologist Douglas Owsley, to take a big risk and sue the United States government to gain control of the remains for the sake of scientific inquiry. In 2000, the then-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt determined that the remains belonged to the tribe, and ordered their return.

However, in 2002, the scales shifted in favor of the scientists. U.S. Magistrate John Jelderks ruled that the skeleton wasn’t related to Native Americans based on its physical features, and therefore that NAGPRA didn’t apply in this case. The remains were turned over to the scientists, and the decision was upheld in appeals.

The decision was a blow to the five tribes. “Scientists have dug up and studied American Indians for decades,” Umatilla tribe spokesperson Armand Minthorn wrote in 1996. “We view this practice as desecration of the body and a violation of our most deeply-held religious beliefs.”

Kennewick Man's skeleton is cared for at the Burke Museum in Seattle. (Credit: Richard Brown Photography)

Kennewick Man’s skeleton is cared for at the Burke Museum in Seattle. (Credit: Richard Brown Photography)

Kennewick Man’s remains are currently being cared for at the Burke Museum in Seattle, and they are not on display. Since the 2004 decision, scientists have studied the remains extensively and learned much about this man. Members of the five tribes have also been allowed access to the remains for spiritual ceremonies.

A New Chapter

Research published today marks the first time Kennewick Man’s genetic ancestry has been successfully studied. Eske Willerslev and his team found that Kennewick Man’s genome most closely resembles that of modern Native American tribes, namely the Colville – the only tribe of the five that submitted DNA to be studied.

“It’s very clear that the genome sequence shows that he is most closely related to contemporary Native Americans,” Willerslev said.

Colville Tribe Business Council Chairman Jim Boyd says that the findings, published Thursday in the journal Nature, reaffirmed what the five tribes already knew.

“We are not surprised by the findings, and I doubt that the other claimant tribes, or any tribal people are, for that matter,” Boyd told Discover.  “Our oral traditions have time and time again been doubted by science, only to be proven true at a later date.”

A Bit of Irony

In an ironic twist, the 8-year court battle provided plenty of time for genetic sequencing technology to advance behind the scenes. The technique used to sequence Kennewick Man’s highly degraded DNA is only about five years old. Therefore scientists may have provided the five tribes the evidence they needed to establish their cultural affiliation to Kennewick Man. Had Kennewick Man been buried long ago, scientists wouldn’t have had the opportunity to investigate his lineage to this degree.

A stone projectile point in Kennewick Man's right hip helped research properly date his remains. (Credit: Chip Clark/Smithsonian Institution)

A stone projectile point in Kennewick Man’s right hip helped research properly date his remains. (Credit: Chip Clark/Smithsonian Institution)

“The reason why we can come to this conclusion is because the remains were left out for science, and the conclusion shows that he was Native American,” Willerslev said Wednesday during a press conference. “So, maybe, it all could have been different from the first place.”

Scientists made it clear during the press conference that the research team did not receive any funding from the five tribes to conduct the study.

Kennewick Man’s Future

For now, the Army Corps remain in possession of Kennewick Man’s remains. John Kem, Brigadier General and Commanding General of Northwest Division of Army Corps of Engineers in Oregon, said his office will thoroughly explore next steps.

“When we get the final study, I intend to give very clear direction to the staff for some of the steps needed to package this information with other things we know about Kennewick Man,” Kem said. “It’s not going to be an overnight thing. It will take time.”

As far as the Colville tribe is concerned, the findings bring overdue resolution to a long dispute. Boyd said the five tribes will be meeting to formulate their next steps.

“I just hope that these findings will satisfy the curiosities of folks enough that they will no longer interfere with our cultural practices, and allow us to freely exercise our religion as the United States Constitution guarantees,” Boyd said.

For such a delicate negotiation between scientific progress and cultural rights, it seems likely there are many chapters yet to unfold in the story of Kennewick Man.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
  • evolveorelse

    Is there archaelolgical evidence that any of the five tribes were in that area 8000+ years ago??

    • Willoughbilly

      No, but their casino was!

    • JOAN JET

      does oral history count?

      • evolveorelse

        The oral history at Taos Pueblo states that their ancestors had been at that location since the beginning of time. So the answer to your question is “no”.

      • david macdiarmid

        Only if you swallowed

        • JOAN JET

          good one beavis. or is that you, butthead?

          • No bullshit dave

            smart response ya pig.

    • ChuckRamone

      There’s this genetic evidence. What more evidence do you need?

      • Icabod

        The Americas were populated from Asia. While there is DNA evidence that suggest immigrants from other areas, the rest of the DNA says Asia. It’s suggestive that K-Man is related to the Ainu of Japan. In bone structure, his remains are very diffent then today’s American Indians.
        As for oral tradition, the Secretary of the Interior use a tribes tradition of a flood to award the remains. He decided that the Missoula Floods were where the flood story came from. However, the floods were 13-15,000 years ago, long before there’s any archeological evidence. At the same time, one could argue that the Middle Eastern flood stories could have been the source. The law said that evidence of a “cultural affiliation” was required. There is no such evidence. The projectile point found in the pelvis doesn’t link to any tribe and one could argue that it was from an enemy.

        • ChuckRamone

          Skull morphology, as this study revealed, is not very useful in determining racial origins or relatedness among peoples. The Natives have undergone in situ evolution since first arriving in the Americas. Using skull shape as a criterion for racial origins is considered antiquated science. As for the flood story, it pops up in lots of human origin myths all across the world. The Middle Eastern flood stories, which probably come from the time of the Epic of Gilgamesh, and were reused by subsequent civilizations, is unlikely to be the source of the one for American Natives.

          • Burton

            There were around 50 massive floods unequaled, as far as anyone knows, by anything in Earth’s history, in Eastern Washington and down the Columbia River to its mouth during the later stages of the last Ice Age. There were people here to see it. It has nothing to do with the Noah Flood myth.

          • david macdiarmid

            Well spoken Burton

    • Burton

      Yes, there is.

  • Hard Little Machine

    He was a white guy passing

  • OldDrBob

    DNA doesn’t lie. and silly jokes completely ignore what’s actually a fantastic scientific result. I don’t know how wide a range of different tribes’ DNA Kennewick Man was compared to, but the fact that it is distinctively Native American settles a number of suggestions based solely on his facial features. (Like that he was a “white guy passing”.) The fact that his DNA most closely matches that of the Colviille tribe, among the Native Americans studied, says that their ancestors have lived in that part of the Pacific Northwest for over 8000 years! That’s as pretty remarkable finding.

    Some accommodation needs to be arrived at with Native American tribes so that this sort of DNA work can be done on future discoveries (and maybe some old ones, with the new techniques). It is minimally invasive, and can tell how Native Americans changed over time, and how they are related to their distant relatives in northwest Asia.

  • Icabod

    The law state that there has to be a cultural affiliation to a tribe. While my DNA shows a Scadinavian heritage, which of the nations there do I have a cultural affiliation? In fact, my DNA is shared with people not only in Scandinavia but throught the United States. Babbitt made his determination on a tribal story of a flood. He declared that the huge flood at the end of the ice age was that.
    The Corps of Engineers destroyed the site when the remains were found, bones were taken from the storage location and given to the tribes, the Smithsonian scientists had their jobs threatened If they continued the lawsuit.
    Finally, during the court case, the government lawyers pointed out that K-Man “had to be” American Indian as he died before 1492. The judge pointed out that the Greenlanders had settled in the Americas 500 years before that. Were their bodies found, would they be given to the tribes? The lawyers answered “Yes.”

    • mary.bullock4

      If you look for extra profit of about 50 bucks to 300 bucks on daily basis for freelancing from your couch at home for few h daily then read more here…

  • Sky Leach

    lol humans are so dumb

  • Garland Holt

    So, his DNA most closely resembles that of modern Native American tribes. That is of current Native American tribes. Likely because the people of his affiliation interbreed with those that later became modern native Americans. This does not mean he was directly related to them. Their DNA has bits of his profile because of the interbreeding. Does his DNA resembles that of the ancestors of current tribes?


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