The Kennewick Man

31 Aug

In 1996, two college students found in the shallows of the Columbia River what turned out to be a human skeleton. According to Douglas Preston in the latest Smithsonian,

Thus began the saga of Kennewick Man, one of the oldest skeletons ever found in the Americas and an object of deep fascination from the moment it was discovered. It is among the most contested set of remains on the continents as well. Now, though, after two decades, the dappled, pale brown bones are at last about to come into sharp focus, thanks to a long-awaited, monumental scientific publication next month co-edited by the physical anthropologist Douglas Owsley, of the Smithsonian Institution. No fewer than 48 authors and another 17 researchers, photographers and editors contributed to the 680-page Kennewick Man: The Scientific Investigation of an Ancient American Skeleton (Texas A&M University Press), the most complete analysis of a Paleo-American skeleton ever done.

I suspect controversy will not end with this announced Smithsonian publication. (Note: Smithsonian is the publication in which this article appears, and lead anthropologist Owsley works for the Smithsonian.) Owsley and the other contributors conclude that the 9000-year-old skeleton is of a non-American Indian most akin to the Ainu people of Japan. They speculate that the Kennewick Man and his people got to the Americas by coastal migration, before the people we know as Native Americans arrived.

However, before arriving at these conclusions, Owsley and the other contributors to the book had to win in court against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who claimed custodianship of the remains since it was found on their land and since it was deemed likely that the remains were Native American, and therefore came under the 1990 federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Further, Columbia River Basin Indian tribes are still convinced, despite the court decisions, that the skeleton is of one of their ancestors, and thus morally should be turned over to a tribe who will reinter the skeleton. Finally, the scientists’ conclusions were not based on DNA evidence from the skeleton. The skeleton, in other words, has been at the center of a science versus Native American traditions and sovereignty conflict, and that conflict is not likely to go away anytime soon.

For Preston’s entire article, see The Kennewick Man Finally Freed to Share His Secrets | History | Smithsonian.

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