Kennewick Man Lives in North America

Kennewick Man is a nearly complete skeleton dating to about 9,300 years before the present that was found during 1996 in eastern Washington State. Because the skeleton resembles no known ethnic group, it has provoked major debate regarding origins of humankind in the Western Hemisphere.

Summary of Event

Kennewick Man is a 9,300-year-old, nearly complete skeleton of roughly 350 pieces found in eastern Washington State during 1996. Because the remains resemble no present-day ethnicity, a major archaeological debate ensued between Native Americans and archaeologists regarding ownership of the remains. This debate provoked the first major legal test of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA, signed into federal law during 1990). The discovery of Kennewick Man’s remains also sparked debate over human origins in the Americas, which may be much more complex (and much more multicultural) than has been commonly supposed.

Kennewick Man’s remains were first stumbled on by two college students, twenty-one-year-old Will Thomas and twenty-year-old Dave Deacy, on July 28, 1996. The two residents of nearby West Richland, home from college for the summer, were looking for a spot on the banks of the Columbia River from which to watch the annual hydroplane races. Recent flushing from Columbia River Dams, an attempt to preserve salmon runs for commercial and Native American fishing, had disturbed the sediments and exposed the human remains that became known as Kennewick Man. James Chatters, whose company, Applied Paleoscience, routinely conducted skeletal forensics for Benton County coroner Floyd Johnson, helped police gather what eventually became a skeleton that was complete except for its sternum and a few small bones in the hands and feet.

The skeleton seemed to Chatters to have belonged to a man who was old by the standards of his time (between forty and fifty-five years of age) and about five foot nine or ten inches, tall for a human being that old. He evidently had led a rough life: He had compound fractures in at least six ribs and damage to his left shoulder, which probably caused his arm to wither. He also had a healed-over skull injury. Kennewick Man, whose dietary staple was fish, probably died of injuries sustained after a stone projectile point pierced his thigh and lodged in his pelvis. The projectile probably caused a fatal infection that may have festered for as many as six months. Kennewick Man had a long, narrow skull, a projecting nose, receding cheekbones, a high chin, and a square mandible.

As publicity about Kennewick Man spread, the Army Corps of Engineers received more than a dozen claims for the skeleton, including one from the Asatru Folks Assembly and another from Old Norse, a California-based religious organization. Amid the adamant statements of some non-Indians that they had found a long-lost “white” brother, Vine Deloria, Jr., writing in the Denver Post, reminded his readers that, “In September, 1997, the American Anthropological Association sent a report to the Bureau of the Census, saying one could not determine race scientifically. So much for narrow skulls and high cheekbones.” University of Washington anthropologist Charles Keyes agreed fundamentally with Deloria: “Race does not exist. Racism does exist.”


A lawsuit filed against the Corps of Engineers regarding Kennewick Man by eight anthropologists represented the first major legal challenge by scientists to NAGPRA, a 1990 law that provides for the repatriation to tribes of Indian skeletons and ceremonial and mortuary artifacts. Writing to the Corps of Engineers, physical anthropologists Douglas W. Owsley of the Smithsonian Institution and Richard L. Jantz of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, warned, “If a pattern of returning [such] remains without study develops, the loss to science will be incalculable and we will never have the data required to understand the earliest populations in America.”

NAGPRA is, by and large, a reflection of Native American views on repatriation. The eight anthropologists, however, wanted to use archaeological remains for scientific study. Such explorations are opposed by a number of Native American groups including the Native Nations, who also have claimed the remains of Kennewick Man. “Native remains are not objects for scientific curiosity. They are relatives. They are grandmothers and grandfathers,” said Debra Harry, coordinator of the Indigenous Peoples Coalition Against Biopiracy, in Nixon, Nevada. “When these relatives are put away . . . they’re not to be disturbed by anyone . . . and the place that they rest is sacred ground.”

In the case of human remains inadvertently discovered on federal land, NAGPRA regulations require the government to notify Indian nations “likely to be culturally affiliated with” the remains, tribes “which aboriginally occupied the area,” and “any other Indian tribe . . . reasonably known to have a cultural relationship to” the remains in question. Kennewick Man was found within the traditional territory of the Umatilla tribes (as determined by the Indian Claims Commission). The Umatillas’ claim to the land on which Kennewick Man was found is supported by a treaty signed with the United States government in 1855. The Corps of Engineers initially determined that the remains might be affiliated with the Yakima and Nez Perce as well. On August 27, the Corps notified these three tribes; Chatters informed the Colvilles himself.

During August of 2002, after more than a year of deliberation (much of it spent reading several thousand pages of documentation), U.S. District Court judge John Jelderks found for the scientists, denying the four tribes possession of Kennewick Man’s remains under NAGPRA. “Allowing study is fully consistent with applicable statutes and regulations, which are clearly intended to make archaeological information available to the public through scientific research,” Jelderks wrote.

Chatters, who had first handled the remains, joined the scientists in maintaining that he could support the provisions of NAGPRA and oppose returning Kennewick Man to the tribes for reburial. “I have conducted repatriations for some of the same tribes who claimed this skeleton,” Chatters wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “I support the purpose of the law.” Chatters maintained that Kennewick Man’s remains were outside the scope of NAGPRA. “The act,” he wrote, “was not intended to turn over all ancient skeletons to some Indian tribe, regardless of relationship. . . . The past is not a possession.”

To the tribes that had sought to rebury the remains, Chatters’s statement came as something of a simplification, because the point of NAGPRA is that, when human remains are concerned, the past is indeed a possession. The basic question was—and remains—how far back in time the legality of possession reaches.

In February, 2004, the Ninth United States Appeals court upheld Jelderks’s decision.

Further Reading

  • Chatters, James C. “Politics Aside, These Bones Belong to Everybody.” Wall Street Journal, September 5, 2002, p. D-10. A perspective by the man who uncovered Kennewick Man’s remains.
  • Deloria, Vine, Jr. “Balancing Science, Culture: Do Scientists Have Rights to All Finds?” Denver Post, November 29, 1998, p. G-1. A noted Native American scholar and activist reflects on Kennewick Man, race, and racism.
  • Lasswell, Mark. “The 9,400 Year Old Man: The White House Keeps Trying to Bury Him; Scientists Are Furious.” Wall Street Journal, January 8, 1999, p. W-11. Outlines events in the Kennewick Man case to 1999.
  • Lemonick, Michael P. “Bones of Contention: Scientists and Native Americans Clash over a 9,300-year-old Man with Caucasoid Features.” Time, October 14, 1996. An account of the conflict between Native Americans and scientists.
  • Miller, John J. “Bones of Contention: A Federal Law Stands Between Scientists and America’s Prehistoric Past.” Reason (October, 1997). A philosophical treatment of the case.
  • Petit, Charles W. “Rediscovering America: The New World May Be 20,000 Years Older than Experts Thought.” U.S. News and World Report, October 12, 1998. Kennewick Man against a broader perspective of changing views in archaeology.
  • Preston, Douglas. “The Lost Man.” The New Yorker, June 16, 1997, 70-77. A detailed summary of the Kennewick Man controversy, concentrating on archaeological matters.
  • Slayman, Andrew L. “A Battle Over Bones.” Archaeology 50, no. 1 (January/February, 1997): 16-23. One of the most complete treatments of the suit brought by archaeologists to allow study of Kennewick Man’s remains.