Kennewick Man Is Discovered

The 1996 discovery of ancient human remains on the bank of the Columbia River near Kennewick, Washington, on public land under control of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, triggered a decade-long controversy that pitted forensic and cultural anthropologists against Native Americans who fought for the right to bury their “Ancient One” with dignity and respect.

Summary of Event

On July 28, 1996, two college students, Will Thomas and Dave Deacy, happened upon a human skull that was sitting in Lake Wallula, a reservoir along the Columbia River near Kennewick, Washington. The two friends notified local police officers, who contacted the Benton County coroner, Floyd Johnson. Based on the condition of the bones, Johnson decided it would be most prudent to call forensic anthropologist James C. Chatters in to investigate. Chatters’s preliminary findings suggested that the skull’s long, thin face and protruding jaw appeared to be most closely aligned with Caucasoid characteristics, but the wear pattern of the teeth indicated that the remains were ancient. The fact that the bone configuration did not look Native American and yet the skull appeared to be exceedingly old created great intrigue. Scientists wondered who this man was, where he came from, and what he could reveal about the earliest inhabitants of North America. Kennewick man
Native Americans;Kennewick man
Anthropology;Kennewick man
[kw]Kennewick Man Is Discovered (July 28, 1996)
[kw]Discovered, Kennewick Man Is (July 28, 1996)
Kennewick man
Native Americans;Kennewick man
Anthropology;Kennewick man
[g]North America;July 28, 1996: Kennewick Man Is Discovered[09520]
[g]United States;July 28, 1996: Kennewick Man Is Discovered[09520]
[c]Anthropology;July 28, 1996: Kennewick Man Is Discovered[09520]
[c]Archaeology;July 28, 1996: Kennewick Man Is Discovered[09520]
[c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;July 28, 1996: Kennewick Man Is Discovered[09520]
[c]Prehistory and early cultures and civilizations;July 28, 1996: Kennewick Man Is Discovered[09520]
Johnson, Floyd
Thomas, Will
Deacy, Dave
Chatters, James C.
Jelderks, John
Owsley, Douglas
Bonnichsen, Robson
Hastings, Doc

During the month following the skull’s discovery, Chatters worked, under a permit granted under a provision of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979, Archaeological Resources Protection Act (1979) to uncover the skull’s accompanying well-preserved skeletal remains. The skeleton was found to be that of a forty- to fifty-five-year-old male, approximately 5 feet, 9 inches tall, who showed evidence of having suffered from multiple life traumas. The injuries included a gray area in the right pelvis that computed tomography (CT) scans showed to be a leaf-shaped projectile (arrow) dating from 4,500 to 9,000 years ago. Because this object caused more perplexity in determining the age of the remains, Chatters received authorization from the coroner to conduct DNA and radiocarbon analysis. These tests, conducted on the skeleton’s finger, indicated that the individual, who came to be called Kennewick man, was a fish eater who lived some 9,000 years ago, sometime in the period 7300 to 7600 b.c.e.

On August 30, 1996, four days after the test results were disclosed, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) declared that because the remains were ancient and found on federal land, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990) applied. Under NAGPRA, federal officials must notify Native American tribes who have inhabited the geographic areas near such discoveries, provide the tribes with the opportunity to show cultural affiliation with the discovered remains, and then return the remains to the tribes if affiliation is shown. The USACE seized the Kennewick man remains, required all scientific studies on the remains to halt, and declared its intention to return the remains to the five federated tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (Umatilla, Yakama, Nez Perce, Colville, and Wanapum). The news that the remains would likely be returned to the Umatilla for sacred reburial horrified many scientists who saw the well-preserved remains as priceless clues in the mystery of the population of the Americas. In addition, the USACE’s action triggered other ethnic groups to stake their own claims.

In October, eight well-known archaeologists and anthropologists, including Robson Bonnichsen, director of the Center for the Study of the First Americans, and Douglas Owsley of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, sued the federal government to gain the right to conduct further scientific investigation on Kennewick man. They asserted that there was a lack of due process in the seizure of the remains and that NAGPRA did not pertain in the case because no direct cultural link between Kennewick man and the Native American tribes had been proven. Other groups, including a European religious group, the Asutru Folk Assembly, also filed suits, claiming the right to investigate whether the remains belonged to their ancestors. The claimants understood that the Umatilla planned a quiet hidden burial where the remains of the man they called the Ancient One would be lost to any future research. The scientists contended that further research was vital to learning about Kennewick man’s life and thus gaining information about North America’s past.

In August, 2002, the case Bonnichsen et al. v. United States et al.
Bonnichsen et al. v. United States et al. (2002) was heard in the U.S. District Court in Portland, Oregon. Judge John Jelderks concluded that NAGPRA did not apply to Kennewick man because the government had failed to prove that the skeleton was directly linked to modern Native Americans. Because that burden of proof had not been met, Jelderks decided, scientists had the right to access and continue to study the remains under the provisions of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. In 2004, after an appeal that again temporarily blocked further scientific studies of Kennewick man, Judge Jelderks’s decision was upheld by in the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

With access to the remains, which were held for study at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum, an eleven-person team of scientists, led by Douglas Owsley, gained new information. The researchers learned that Kennewick man had suffered several traumas, that his projectile injury came from the front, and that he had been buried with respect. Scientists continued to examine the remains into the twenty-first century, hoping that further testing will reveal more in-depth information on Kennewick man’s origin. Some research has indicated that he may be genetically most similar to Polynesians or to the Ainu people, who are native to the Japanese islands.

Since the Ninth Circuit Court’s decision, a number of attempts have been made to reverse its effects through legislation. In 2006, for example, Congressman Doc Hastings of Washington State introduced a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives to clarify NAGPRA. The bill was designed to protect scientists’ right to research ancient remains while respecting Native Americans’ tribal rights to their direct ancestors.


The discovery of the ancient human skeleton dubbed Kennewick man by scientists and Ancient One by Native Americans stirred debate as to the legal, ethical, moral, and cultural rights of scientists and indigenous peoples. Scientists argued that the remains could possibly shed light on the peopling of the Americas, while Native Americans were primarily concerned with respecting their ancestor’s right to a proper reburial. The decision to permit scientific research on Kennewick man was finally settled in court, but the battle exposed a major rift regarding the best approach to handling the remnants of ancient inhabitants. Attempts to modify federal legislation affecting archaeological findings have been ongoing. Many Native Americans adhere to the belief that all remains of ancient people found on their traditional lands are the remains of their ancestors. Scientists remain protective of their rights to study skeletons that are not genetically proven to be Native American. Further attempts to clarify the legislation that affects the finding of human remains on federal lands that were once populated by Native Americans have been proposed to help prevent additional ambiguity regarding future vestiges of the legacy of early human beings. Kennewick man
Native Americans;Kennewick man
Anthropology;Kennewick man

Further Reading

  • Barkan, Elazar, and Ronald Bus, eds. Claiming the Stones, Naming the Bones: Cultural Property and the Negotiation of National and Ethnic Identity. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2002. Collection of essays explores the concept of cultural property from multiple perspectives, including those of law, archaeology, physical anthropology, ethnobiology, and ethnomusicology.
  • Benedict, Jeff. No Bone Unturned: The Adventures of a Top Smithsonian Forensic Scientist and the Legal Battle for America’s Oldest Skeleton. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003. Reviews the significant work of Douglas Owsley of the Smithsonian Institution and discusses Owsley’s part in the case of Kennewick man. Includes index.
  • Bruning, Susan B. “Complex Legal Legacies: The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, Scientific Study, and Kennewick Man.” American Antiquity 71 (July, 2006): 501-522. Discusses the legal aspects of NAGPRA and the provisions of the law concerning scientific study.
  • Chatters, James C. Ancient Encounters: Kennewick Man and the First Americans. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. Readable account by the first forensic anthropologist to examine the bones. Includes bibliographic notes and index.
  • Dewar, Elaine. Bones: Discovering the First Americans. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2001. Journalistic work investigates the politics and history in the battle of the remains. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Downey, Roger. Riddle of the Bones: Politics, Science, Race, and the Story of Kennewick Man. New York: Copernicus, 2000. Discusses the major concerns and parties involved in the controversial issues surrounding Kennewick man. Includes index.
  • Thomas, David Hurst. Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity. New York: Basic Books, 2000. Covers the historical background in the disagreement between Native Americans and archaeologists in handling ancient American remains. Includes bibliography and index.

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