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The Kennewick Man: Discovery & Controversy

Instructor: Patricia ONeill
On a July day in 1996, two young men stumbled on human remains along the Columbia River near Kennewick, Washington. Forensic testing discovered that the bones were more than 9,000 years old. A controversy arose about whether to allow scientists to investigate 'Kennewick Man' or allow Native Americans to rebury the bones.

Meet Kennewick Man

The 9,200-year old skeleton, known as K-Man in eastern Washington, is 90% complete and belongs to a male who stood about 5'8' tall and weighed about 170 pounds. Kennewick Man had quite muscular legs, like a soccer player, probably from long distance running and hunting; he got hit on the head several times and stabbed with a stone spearhead that got stuck in his hip. Research shows that he ate mostly marine animals, such as seals, and that he was probably about 40 years old when he died.

The Dispute About Kennewick Man

For more than a decade after the discovery, scientists and Native American tribes in Washington State fought over whether to re-bury or to study one of the oldest skeletons ever found in North America. The Army Corps of Engineers, which controls the land on which the skeleton was found, announced it would repatriate the remains of Kennewick Man to the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, even though it did not require the Umatilla to establish a cultural relationship, as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act required.

Eight anthropologists filed lawsuit to halt the Army Corps' repatriation process, which would have resulted in the immediate reburial of the remains by the Umatilla. Ultimately, a federal judge decided in favor of the scientists, after determining that the tribes could not prove a direct cultural affiliation with Kennewick Man because the remains were so old that it was impossible to link them to modern-day tribes.

Kennewick Man excavation site
Kennewick Site

The Larger Issue

As the Seattle Times Newspaper reported, this bitter and complex battle over the rights to Kennewick Man's skeleton and to his origins extended more broadly to questions of race and to the peopling of the Americas.

On the one hand, scientists could hardly wait to study the bones extensively. They hoped that Kennewick Man could help them understand how and when humans first came to North America. Dr. Hugh Berryman, a forensic anthropologist, said: 'It's one of the earliest individuals that populated this continent, and we have a chance to look at those remains and learn from them what they tell us about the past and who these people were.'

However, many of the Columbia Plateau Native American tribes were equally interested in Kennewick Man; they claimed him as an ancestor, and wanted permission to rebury the bones as part of their religious tradition. Tribal leaders argued strenuously that their spiritual traditions demanded such remains be put back to rest as soon as possible.

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