This July 24, 1997, photo shows a plastic
casting of the skull from the bones known as Kennewick Man.
Beer in hand, 21-year-old Will Thomas bent down in the middle
of the Columbia River to grab what he thought was a rock.
"Look, Dave," he reportedly told his friend Dave Deacy. It was
1996, and the college students were trying to sneak into a boat
race near Kennewick, a small city in the southeast corner of Washington.
Their master plan, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, was to
check out girls. "I found a head," he joked.
It wasn't until after he lifted the skull out of the water that
Thomas realized his jest wasn't factually incorrect.
The duo tucked the cranium on dry land and moseyed over to the
race. Afterward, they flagged a police officer, handing off the
head in the bottom of a 5-gallon bucket. The skull and a few other
bones then passed from the sheriff's office to the coroner to a
local forensic anthropologist, James Chatters, until someone carbon
dated a finger and realized the remains were about 9,000 years old
making them among the oldest remains in North America.
The Kennewick Man, nine millennia after his death, was born.
Thomas and Deacy believed they had found a victim of murder
or suicide. They had, in fact, found a victim but the assault
occurred long before Egyptians got around to building the pyramids.
Chatters scoured the site on the Columbia River, finding an almost
complete skeleton in freshly-eroded mud. While he was alive, the
Kennewick Man had had a rough existence: One arm was withered, as
though crushed, and he had been stabbed in the hip with a rock spear
with the serrated tip embedding itself in his pelvic bone. It's
believed he survived the initial attack but not the infection.
Once the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which had control over
the Columbia River property, caught wind of the bones' ancient age,
the agency demanded the remains. A local tribe, the Umatilla, had
claimed the Kennewick Man as an ancestor; the Native American group
wanted to lay the skeleton to rest according to custom. Chatters,
who had teamed up with paleoanthropologists like the Smithsonian
Institute's renowned bone expert Douglas Owsley, resisted.
Thus began a debate that would last for 20 years. In one corner
were the scientists, who over the years have wanted to sequence
the Kennewick Man's DNA and scrape his molars to see what he ate.
Burial without first letting scientists analyze the bones, paleontologist
Thomas Stafford told the Denver Post in 1997, "would be like burning
the great library of Alexandria."
In the other corner was a coalition of five Native American
groups the Nez Perce, Yakama, Wanapum and Colville tribes,
along with the Umatilla, who refer to the Kennewick Man as the Ancient
One. Their legal footing, they say, is the Native American Graves
Protection and Repatriation Act legislation enacted in 1990
as a way to return cultural items kept by federal agencies and museum
By September of 1996, the Army Corps of Engineers had possession
of the remains minus a few thigh bones, which mysteriously
vanished in the process. (Years later, the Federal Bureau of Investigation
would hunt for the bones and launch an investigation when the body
parts resurfaced in the Kennewick sheriff's evidence vault.) In
response, Owsley and seven other scientists, wanting to examine
the bones, sued the Corps in federal court.
"We believe that something this ancient is a precious gift,"
Alan Schneider, an attorney for the paleontologists, told Newsday
at the time. "If we repatriate it we should gather as much information
as possible for future generations." Meanwhile, the Kennewick Man
surfaced from the mud only to be sealed in a safe at the Pacific
Northwest National Laboratory, beyond the reach of camera lenses
and analytical equipment.
Umatilla religious leader Armand Minthorn was unimpressed with
the researchers' entreaty. "Some scientists say that if this individual
is not studied further, we, as Indians, will be destroying evidence
of our own history," he said in a statement on behalf of his tribe
as the debate raged on. "We already know our history. It is passed
on to us through our elders and through our religious practices."
The legal battle wove its way through the federal court system
at an estimated cost of at least $5 million in taxpayer money
until 2004, when a San Francisco federal appeals court ruled in
favor of the scientists: There was not enough evidence that the
Kennewick Man belonged to one of the tribes, and, therefore, the
Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was not relevant.
Chatters and the other anthropologists successfully argued the skull
morphology was closer to those of the Ainu, an ancient Japanese
tribe, than the cranial features of Native Americans.
But a sliver of hope remained for the five tribes. According
to the Seattle Times, the appeals court wrote that if data surfaces
indicating the Kennewick Man "may be Native American, it might cause
us to reopen the analysis."
In the meantime, Owsley had the liberty to move forward with
his research. As the Smithsonian Magazine reported:
A vast amount of data was collected in the 16 days Owsley and
colleagues spent with the bones. Twenty-two scientists scrutinized
the almost 300 bones and fragments. Led by Kari Bruwelheide, a forensic
anthropologist at the Smithsonian, they first reassembled the fragile
skeleton so they could see it as a whole. They built a shallow box,
added a layer of fine sand, and covered that with black velvet;
then Bruwelheide laid out the skeleton, bone by bone, shaping the
sand underneath to cradle each piece. Now the researchers could
address such questions as Kennewick Man's age, height, weight, body
build, general health and fitness, and injuries. They could also
tell whether he was deliberately buried, and if so, the position
of his body in the grave.
Next the skeleton was taken apart, and certain key bones studied
intensively. The limb bones and ribs were CT-scanned at the University
of Washington Medical Center. These scans used far more radiation
than would be safe for living tissue, and as a result they produced
detailed, three-dimensional images that allowed the bones to be
digitally sliced up any which way. With additional CT scans, the
team members built resin models of the skull and other important
bones. They made a replica from a scan of the spearpoint in the
As work progressed, a portrait of Kennewick Man emerged. He
does not belong to any living human population.
But Owsley and the Smithsonian team weren't the only scientists
who wanted in on the Kennewick Man's dance card. An international
team of geneticists, led by researchers at Stanford University and
the University of Copenhagen, extracted biologic information from
200 milligrams of Kennewick Man hand bone. And the results that
they published, in the journal Nature in 2015, flew in the face
of Owsley's morphologic work. "Using ancient DNA, we were able to
show that Kennewick Man is more closely related to Native Americans
than any other population," said Morten Rasmussen, a Stanford geneticist
and author of the research, in a statement.
This was just the sort of evidence that could fly through the
window the appeals court had left open. A year after the Nature
announcement, a team at the University of Chicago confirmed that
the Kennewick Man is genetically related to Native Americans in
the Pacific Northwest. And, on Wednesday, the Army Corps of Engineers
which is in possession of the remains declared that
it's working with the Native American tribes to coordinate a burial.
The tribes responded positively to the news of the Kennewick
Man's return. But a representative for the Confederated Tribes of
the Umatilla told the Associated Press that the scientific evidence
"acknowledges what we already knew and have been saying" for the
past 20 years. As the Umatilla leader Minthorn said in 1996: "If
this individual is truly over 9,000 years old, that only substantiates
our belief that he is Native American. From our oral histories,
we know that our people have been part of this land since the beginning