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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 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. 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?

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.

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

Is the Burke involved in the study of the remains?

While the remains are cared for by the Burke Museum, we were not involved in the 2005-2006 study of the remains conducted by the plaintiffs in the court case.

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 primarily written for academic audiences was released in September 2014. It co-edited by Owsley and Dr. Richard Jantz, another plaintiff in the case.

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

How is Kennewick Man stored and monitored to ensure his preservation?

As expected, repeated handling and sampling the bones have caused some damage to the Kennewick Man remains. Scientific research, especially manually refitting pieces for measurement and removing samples of bone, is damaging. To protect the bones and minimize this damage, conservators consulting for the US 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 monitors the remains using dataloggers to record temperature and relative humidity. A variety of carefully proscribed visual assessments and full inventories are also regularly conducted. Photographs are taken as needed to record condition; videotaping is not one of the conditions of our agreement. Reports are submitted, as part of our obligations, to the US Army Corps of Engineers and their consulting conservators.

Does the Burke Museum have a controlled environment?

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 does not specify temperature or relative humidity ranges.

Our dataloggers indicate that temperature and relative humidity are not constant. The data we have collected about changes in temperature and relative humidity have provided critical insight into long-term preservation studies, in particular, areas of the bones where researchers applied adhesives prior to 1998. Conservator assessments to date have found that physical damage to the bones has occurred as a result of handling and not environmental changes. It is noteworthy that different materials respond differently to environmental change, and some objects are more at risk. For example, basketry, textiles, and objects made of multiple materials types such as a knife with a wooden handle and a metal blade are more at risk than stone and mineralized or fossilized bone.

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.

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.