Who is “Kennewick Man,” also known as “The Ancient One”?
On July 28, 1996, two men at Columbia Park in Kennewick, Washington, accidentally found part of a human skull on the bottom of the Columbia River about ten feet from shore. Later searches turned up a nearly complete male skeleton, now known as “The Ancient One” or “Kennewick Man.”
Public interest, debate, and controversy began when independent archaeologist Dr. James Chatters, working on contract with the county coroner, thought that the bones might not be Native American. He described them as “Caucasoid” and sent a piece of bone to a laboratory to be dated. The results indicated an age older than 9,000 years, making Kennewick Man one of the oldest and most complete skeletons found in North America. Subsequent research on the bones indicates that the skeleton is between 8,400–8,690 years old.
Kennewick Man became the subject of an eight-year-long lawsuit between the federal government (along with several Native American tribes) and a group of scholars, (plaintiffs in the case) that started in 1996.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), passed in 1990, provides legal protections for Native American human remains, including their return to tribal communities from museums if the tribes can prove they are related to the remains.
As of April 19, 2004, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an earlier decision by U.S. District Court Judge Jelderks that the remains could not be defined as “Native American” under the NAGPRA law. Therefore the Kennewick Man remains were under the control of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and scientific study of the remains by the plaintiffs was allowed to take place.
Although the court case was resolved in 2004, the debate continued.
Why are the remains at the Burke Museum?
The court designated that the Burke Museum, the Washington State Museum of Natural History and Culture, was the most suitable neutral place for the safekeeping of the Kennewick Man remains.
On October 16, 1998, the Burke Museum signed a Memorandum of Agreement for Curatorial Services with the Northwestern Division, United States Army Corps of Engineers. This agreement was setup to provide for the care of the human remains known as Kennewick Man. As part of this agreement, the Burke provides and maintains safeguards for the security and environment of the human remains and associated records. The Burke has met, and continues to meet, these obligations.
Are the remains on display?
No, the Kennewick Man remains are not on display. They are in a private, secure location at the Burke Museum.
What studies were conducted using the remains?
After the 2004 ruling, the plaintiffs and their colleagues have made three visits to the Burke Museum to carry out scientific research on the remains. Representatives of some of the tribes involved in the case also visited the remains to conduct ceremonies, and remained committed to having Kennewick Man repatriated.
In September 2014, Dr. Douglas Owsley, Smithsonian physical anthropologist and one of the plaintiffs in the case, shared his morphology-based findings that indicated that the skeleton was not of Native American affinity, and may have been more closely related to circumpacific groups such as the Ainu and Polynesians.
In June 2015, University of Copenhagen geneticist Dr. Eske Willerslev and colleagues released findings in the scientific journal “Nature” after sequencing the genome of Kennewick Man. The team compared DNA extracted from a hand bone to worldwide genomic data, including the Ainu and Polynesians. They found that Kennewick Man is more closely related to modern Native Americans than any other living population.
While the remains are cared for by the Burke Museum, we are not involved in research conducted on the remains.
Scientific research, especially manually refitting pieces for measurement and removing samples of bone, is damaging. As expected, the repeated handling and sampling the bones by outside researchers caused some damage to the Kennewick Man remains. To protect the bones and minimize this damage, conservators consulting for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers devised specially designed boxes for Kennewick Man. These special boxes include hundreds of individualized cutouts to cradle the bones and reduce movement. This unique housing within curation-quality handmade boxes ensures that the bones incur as little damage as possible. Regular conservation assessments indicate that these boxes are doing their job.
The Burke Museum has a heating and ventilation system, but does not have an air-conditioning system. Even in the moderate Northwest climate, environmental controls are important, and it is one reason why we are working to build a new facility. While we await our new building, we protect our collections in many ways. Museum standards encourage creating microclimates in areas where climate control is difficult. Kennewick Man is stored in just such a microclimate. This allows the bones to be buffered from quick fluctuations, but does not control long-term changes in temperature or relative humidity. The Burke’s agreement with the Corps did not specify temperature or relative humidity ranges.