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Kennewick Man/The Ancient One

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 a contract to 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 tests of other bone samples showed the skeleton to be somewhere between 8,000 and 9,500 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 that started in 1996. Although the court case was resolved in 2004, the debate continues today.

Who owns the remains?

Under U.S. law, human remains cannot be “owned” by anyone. However, the Kennewick Man remains were recovered from federal land and are thus currently controlled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Why are the remains at the Burke Museum?

In October 1998, the court designated that the Burke Museum, the Washington State museum, was the most suitable neutral place for the safekeeping of the Kennewick Man remains. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has continued to contract with the Burke to care for the remains.

Is the Burke involved in the study of the remains?

While the remains are cared for by the Burke Museum, we are not involved in the current study of the remains.

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. All access to the remains is regulated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

What will happen to the remains?

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 are still 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.

Is there any new progress on the status of Kennewick Man?

Since 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 have also been allowed to make visits to the remains to conduct ceremonies, and they remain committed to having Kennewick Man repatriated.

Dr. Douglas Owsley, Smithsonian physical anthropologist and one of the plaintiffs, has shared some of his preliminary findings with local tribes and the general public. He co-wrote a children’s book, Their Skeletons Speak: Kennewick Man and The Paleoamerican World, published in late 2012 with Sally Walker. A book for academic audiences is currently being completed by Dr. Owsley and his colleagues, with a promised publication date in 2014.

Are there studies or publications on Kennewick Man?

For a listing of selected articles on studies and other publications pertaining to Kennewick Man, visit the Studies and Publications page.