Kennewick Man
is the name for the remains of a prehistoric man found on a bank of the Columbia River near Kennewick, Washington, on July 28, 1996. The discovery of Kennewick Man was accidental; a pair of spectators at the yearly hydroplane races found his skull while swimming in the Columbia River.

The remains became argument in debates about the relationship between Native American religious rights, archaeology and other interested stakeholders. Based on the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), five Native American groups (the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Yakama, Wanapum, and Colville) claimed the ruins as theirs, to be buried by traditional resources. Merely the Umatilla tribe continued added court proceedings. In February 2004, the United States Court of demands for the Ninth Circuit ruled that a cultural link between the tribes and the skeleton was not met, allowing scientific study of the remains to carry on.

Scientific importance

The remains had been dotted in the reservoir due to erosion. Following delivery of the skull by the coroner, they were observed by archaeologist James Chatters. After ten visits to the spot, Chatters had managed to gather 350 bones and pieces of bone, which with the skull completed almost an entire skeleton.

  • The skull was fully intact with all the teeth that had been present at the time of death. All main bones were found, apart from the sternum and a few bones of the hands and feet.

  • The remains were determined to be those of "a male of late middle age (40-55 years), and tall (170 to 176 cm), slim build". Most of the bones were broken into several pieces.

  • At the University of California at Riverside, a small bone fragment was focused to radiocarbon dating.

  • This fixed the age of the skeleton at around 8,400 radiocarbon years or 9,300 calendar years, not the nineteenth century, as had originally been assumed. After studying the bones, Chatters completed they belonged to a Caucasoid male about 68 inches (173 cm) tall who had died in his mid fifties.

To additional examine the mystery of the Kennewick man and determine if the skeleton belonged to the Umatilla Native American tribe, an extraction of DNA was analyzed but at first could not be finished because it contradicted Native American values protected under NAGPRA.

He said that Kennewick Man was not European but quite resembled South Asians and the Ainu people of northeast Asia. The consequences of a graphic relationship, including size, of Kennewick Man to 18 modern populations conducted by Chatters et al. showed he was most closely related to the Ainu.

Skull found on shore of Columbia

An aerial view shows the area of Columbia Park where Kennewick Man was found.

  • It started in July 1996 when two young boat-racing enthusiasts stumbled across a skull alongside the Columbia River in Kennewick, Wash.

  • It has developed into a skirmish between American Indians who believe nature should be left to take its direction with the remains and scientists who want to study them.

  • In the middle are the bones of a man supposed to have lived 9,200 years ago to the age of 45 who was injured by a stone projectile.

  • From the skeleton's detection through the battle over who will gain its control, the Tri-City Herald has been there.

What is the Kennewick Man Argument About?

Public interest, debate, and argument began when an independent archaeologist, working on contract to the Kennewick coroner, decided the bones were ancient but might not be Native American. Archaeologist explained them as "Caucasoid" and sent a piece of bone to a laboratory to be dated. The final date indicated an age of 9,000 years, making Kennewick Man one of the oldest and most complete skeletons found in the Americas.

  • The Kennewick Man news story is one of the most significant archaeology stories of contemporary times.

  • The discovery of Kennewick Man, the immense amount of public confusion over what he represents, the Federal government's effort to settle the case out of court, the suit pressed by scientists, the protestation raised by the Native American community, the rulings of the court and, eventually, the analysis of the remains.

  • All of these problem have affected how scientists, Native Americans, and the Federal governmental bodies perform work and how that work is scrutinized by the public.

Science, Religion, and Politics

What at the time looks like the last few acts of the Kennewick Man debate were played out third week of September, 2000. In a letter dated September 21st, 2000, then-US Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt wrote

"After considering and weighing the entirety of the situation and evidence, DOI [the United States Department of the Interior] has determined that the proof of cultural connection is sufficient to show by a preponderance of the proof that the Kennewick remains are culturally affiliated with the present-day Indian tribe claimants."

Babbitt further mention that the Indian tribe claimants were now the legal custodians of the skeletal material and further scientific research by members of the public was to be up to them.

This is but one fight in the war between science and religion; or maybe between Native American rights and the First Amendment rights of the scientific community. But make no mistake about it; the chance was very high on both sides.

Ante-Mortem Change Of Kennwick Men

Dr. Powell conducted physical examination and assessment of the Kennewick human remains at the Burke Museum, The Kennewick skeleton exhibits several minor osseous changes that are clearly of Ante-Mortem Origin. Although the skeleton shows some proof of localized infections and traumatic injuries there is no clear proof of osteoporosis or other systemic circumstances that affect bone density and thus might influence the preservation of DNA.

Examples of pathological circumstances present in the Kennewick skeleton.

  • Upper left: Reactive area in the olecranon fossa of the left humerus.

  • Upper right, Close-up view of reactive bone in the area of the septal aperture of the olecranon fossa of the left humerus.

  • Lower left, Area of the head of the left radius showing proof of localized trauma.

  • Lower right, A 6mm in diameter, well-healed miserable break to outer table of the left frontal bone.

Traumatic injuries contain a projectile injury in the right ilium that resulted in a secondary infection and a small, 6mm in diameter, well-healed depressed break to the outer table of the left frontal bone.

The left radius shows evidence of localized trauma and the olecranon fossa is partially filled with reactive bone indicative of an inflammatory process.

Dr. Powell and his team conducted suspiciously examined all of the rib fragments with a break down microscope. Based on this assessment we conclude that no clear proof of rib pseudarthroses is present in the Kennewick skeleton.Several of the rib fragments have ends that show, based on passing visual examination, to show in vivo remodeling (97.I.12a(1), 97.I.12a(3), 97.I.12a(7), 97.I.12a(9)).

The differences between the Kennewick rib crack and the pseudarthroses in modern forensic cases include:

  • The absence of any facts of subperiosteal new bone or callus formation.

  • The fact that the fracture is perpendicular to the rib, instead of hinged as is typical for in vivo crack.

  • The difference between the straight fracture line of the Kennewick ribs and the "frayed" edges often seen in vivo rib fractures.

  • The presence of what appears to be calcite along the edge and within the fractured edge of the Kennewick ribs, and

  • The fact that the cortical surfaces of the Kennewick ribs have an abnormal "pinched" configuration that causes them to closely estimate each other without any reduction in the thickness of the cortex.

Example of Ante-Mortem-Origin

Post-Recovery Changes Of Knennewick Men

The treatment of the Kennewick remains since their recovery from Columbia Park has significantly decreased the value of some skeletal elements for DNA research. A total of 54 transverse cracks have no soil adhering to them and are clearly of recent origin. These fractures either occurred at the detection site a short time before the bones was recovered or in the laboratory after the recovery of the skeleton. Additional longitudinal fracturing of long bones occurred in the laboratory during the drying process (Chatters 2000).

  • These changes included the loss of adherent calcite through cleaning and exfoliation as a result of exposure to air.

  • Another alteration happened because of the removal of material for radiocarbon analysis.

  • One of the oscoxae was treated with dilute hydrochloric acid to remove concretions that enclosed the projectile point embedded in it.

  • The neurocranium and some of the teeth were also treated with a diluted water-based acrylic polymer, and Elmer's glue was used to patch up the cranium and mandible.

  • During the process of manufacturing a mold of the head, it was treated with a release agent and then covered with a polyurethane mold.

Data Analysis of Kennewick Men

Traditional Ethnography

The peoples of the southern Plateau have a rich oral tradition. The Ethnographic overview will focus on usual histories, relationship and patterns of residence, trade and social networks, artifact types and houses, community and settlement patterns, and economic and subsistence patterns. First, however, an overview of the various groups which useed the territory in the vicinity of the confluence of the Columbia and Snake Rivers is presented.

  • The Indian Claims Commission established the geographic presence of tribal territories as outlined in Fig.

  • What this display is that the territories of several groups join around the mouth of the Snake River, in the proximity of Kennewick Men.

  • The mouth of the Snake River was an important fishing location and would attract people from throughout the southern Plateau to participate in the mutual co-utilization of the resource (Anastasio 1975:123).

  • The fact that this area was an significant meeting place and "crossroads" was what confident the fur trade companies to set up a trading post nearby in 1818 (Stern 1993).

  • The modern day descendents of the tribes recognized in this area in the ethnographic and historic record are located on several reservations and in off-reservation communities.

Archaeologists contributing to the Kennewick Man Project
James C. Chatters

James C. Chatters is an affiliate research associate professor at ...

Books Related to Kennewick Man


Anyone trying to make sense of the flap over Kennewick Man--the touchstone of this book--will be frustrated by the lack of solid scientific description.

Ancient Encounters Knnewick Man And The First American written by James C.Chatters .

The skeleton known as Kennewick Man was discovered in 1996 by two young men along the Columbia River near Kennewick, Washington.

Kennewick ManPerspectives on the Ancient One written by Joe Watkins.

Kennewick Man, known as the Ancient One to Native Americans, has been the lightning rod for conflict between archaeologists and indigenous peoples in the United States.

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