New DNA evidence has reignited a longstanding debate over the ownership of a 9000-year-old skeleton, known as Kennewick Man.
After its chance discovery in 1996, Kennewick Man was claimed as an ancestor by local groups of Native Americans, who wanted to rebury the remains. However, they were blocked from doing so by a group of scientists who questioned their assertion and won the legal right to study the skeleton.
Genetic analysis has now shown the skeleton to be more closely related to Native Americans than to any other group.
‘The trail from past to present is often poorly marked in the archaeological record,’ commented co-author David Meltzer from the University of Dallas. ‘With the recovery and careful analysis of ancient DNA, we can better follow that trail: in Kennewick’s case, it leads unerringly to Native Americans.’
During the study, published in Nature, scientists extracted fragments of DNA from 200 milligrams of a hand bone and patched them together to construct a whole genome. They then sequenced this genome and compared it with samples from across the world.
Although the DNA within the bone was highly degraded and mixed with DNA from soil bacteria and other sources, the scientists are confident that the results are correct: the DNA from the skeleton is closer to that from the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Federation than to any of the other samples they compared it with.
Kennewick man was originally found in the Columbia River, near Kennewick, Washington. Over 350 bones and bone fragments were found, and the skeleton is one of the most complete for its age.
Anthropologists originally determined that the skeleton had ‘Caucasoid’ features and was a historic-period Euro-American. However, radiocarbon dating placed the skeleton of Kennewick Man at 8500-9000 years old, making him pre-Columbian.
This led to a legal battle between scientists who wished to study the remains and local Native American tribes who believed the skeleton – whom they call the Ancient One – to be an ancestor.
Under the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), five tribes requested the bones be returned to them for burial. However, anthropologists argued that the skeleton could provide a unique insight into America’s early inhabitants, and in 2004 it was ruled that scientists had the right to study the remains because the origin of the skeleton could not be proved.
Jim Boyd of the Colville Tribe told the BBC that he is very pleased with the outcome of the genetic analysis: ‘We’ve maintained the belief at the Colville Community tribes that the Ancient One is a relative of ours. This is proven now and we are very happy about this.’
It is not yet known what impact these findings will have on the fate of the remains, but the Colville tribe and others are continuing their legal case and hope that the study results will strengthen their case.
‘We need the Ancient One to be respected and returned to the ground,’ Boyd said.
SEATTLE — Nearly two decades after the ancient skeleton called Kennewick Man was discovered on the banks of the Columbia River, the mystery of his origins appears to be nearing resolution.
Genetic analysis is still under way in Denmark, but documents obtained through the federal Freedom of Information Act say preliminary results point to a Native American heritage.
The researchers performing the DNA analysis “feel that Kennewick has normal, standard Native American genetics,” according to a 2013 email to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for the care and management of the bones. “At present there is no indication he has a different origin than North American Native American.”
If that conclusion holds up, it would be a dramatic end to a debate that polarized the field of anthropology and set off a legal battle between scientists who sought to study the 9,500-year-old skeleton and Northwest tribes that sought to rebury it as an honored ancestor.
In response to The Seattle Times’ records request, geochemist Thomas Stafford Jr., who is involved in the DNA analysis, cautioned that the early conclusions could “change to some degree” with more detailed analysis. The results of those studies are expected to be published soon in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Stafford and Danish geneticist Eske Willerslev, who is leading the project at the University of Copenhagen, declined to discuss the work until then.
But other experts said deeper genetic sequencing is unlikely to overturn the basic determination that Kennewick Man’s closest relatives are Native Americans.
The result comes as no surprise to scientists who study the genetics of ancient people, said Brian Kemp, a molecular anthropologist at Washington State University. DNA has been recovered from only a handful of so-called Paleoamericans — those whose remains are older than 9,000 years — but almost all of them have shown strong genetic ties with modern Native Americans, he pointed out.
“This should settle the debate about Kennewick,” Kemp said.
Establishing a Native American pedigree for Kennewick Man would also add to growing evidence that ancestors of the New World’s indigenous people originated in Siberia and migrated across a land mass that spanned the Bering Strait during the last ice age. And it would undermine alternative theories that some early migrants arrived from Southeast Asia or even Europe.
It’s not clear, though, whether the upcoming study will provide tribes the legal ammunition they need to reclaim what they call “The Ancient One.”
Controversy flared over the skeleton almost from the moment in 1996 when two students stumbled across human bones near the Southeastern Washington town of Kennewick.
Bothell archaeologist James Chatters, the first scientist to examine the skeleton, said the skull looked “Caucasoid,” not Native American. A facial reconstruction that bore a striking resemblance to Capt. Jean-Luc Picard (actor Patrick Stewart) of the television series “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” further inflamed members of local tribes, who argued that the remains were rightfully theirs under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
After eight years of litigation, a federal appeals court ruled in 2004 that Kennewick Man’s extreme age made it impossible to establish a clear link to any existing Northwest tribes.
A scientific team led by Douglas Owsley, a physical anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution, won the right to study the skeleton, which is stored at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture.
The results, including a new facial reconstruction based on more thorough analysis of the skull, were published last year in a 669-page book. Owsley, the lead author, told Northwest tribal members in 2012 that he remains convinced Kennewick Man was not Native American.
In an interview last week, Owsley explained that he bases that conclusion on the shape of the skull, which doesn’t look anything like the skulls of modern Native Americans. Its narrow brain case and prominent forehead more closely resemble Japan’s earliest inhabitants and people whose genetic roots are in Southeast Asia, not Siberia and other parts of Northeast Asia.
“His origins are going to go back to coastal Asia,” Owsley said.
That wouldn’t preclude the possibility of some distant, shared ancestry with Native Americans, he added. But chemical analysis of the bones suggests Kennewick Man ate a lot of marine mammals, which means he probably spent most of his life along the coast of Alaska or British Columbia, not on the Columbia Plateau where his bones were discovered, Owsley said.
With its ability to settle questions about lineage, DNA analysis has become one of the most powerful tools for the study of the ancient world, said Peter Lape, curator of archaeology at the Burke Museum.
“This is yet another case where genetics are really revolutionizing the way we think about ancestry and calling into question older scientific methods that rely on looking at the shape of bones,” he said.
Nevertheless, the majority of visitors he encounters at the museum still have the impression that Kennewick Man is caucasian.
“That initial media storm from 1996 just kind of stuck,” Lape said.
Chatters, the man who kicked up that storm, changed his mind after studying the 13,000-year-old skeleton of a young girl discovered in an underwater cave in Mexico. As with Kennewick Man and other remains of the earliest prehistoric Americans, the shape of the girl’s skull was unusual. But DNA analysis proved that she shared a common ancestry with modern Native Americans, originating with the people who migrated into the land mass called Beringia beginning about 15,000 years ago.
“The result from Kennewick is the same one we’re getting from the other early individuals,” Chatters said. “It’s what I expected.”
Attempts to extract DNA from Kennewick Man’s bones in the late 1990s failed. But the technology has advanced so much since then that researchers recently succeeded in analyzing the genome of a 130,000-year-old Neanderthal from a single toe bone.
Willerslev’s Danish lab is a world leader in ancient DNA analysis. Last year, he and his colleagues reported the genome of the so-called Anzick boy, an infant buried 12,600 years ago in Montana. He, too, was a direct ancestor of modern Native Americans and a descendant of people from Beringia.
Until details of the Kennewick analysis are published, there’s no way to know what other relationships his genes will reveal, Kemp said. It may never be possible to link him to specific tribes, partly because so few Native Americans in the United States have had their genomes sequenced for comparison.
“My feeling is once you get the Kennewick genome, there are going to be people lining up to find out if they’re related to him,” he said.
Members of Northwest tribes visit the Burke Museum regularly to pay their respects to The Ancient One, and continue to press for his reburial.
Willerslev met with tribal representatives in Montana before analyzing the Anzick boy’s DNA. Last summer, after those studies were done, he joined tribal members — including several Northwest veterans of the Kennewick Man wars — as they reinterred the boy’s bones on a sagebrush-covered slope near the spot where he was discovered.
Kennewick Man was found resting in the shallow water of the Columbia River 18 years ago. His early story was that of some strife. A rock-point is buried in the bone of his hip.
The Northwest tribes that want to rebury the ancient remains, and the scientists that want to study him fought for years in court. This new book reveals the studies that were ultimately allowed by federal court.
The book explains that Kennewick Man was likely a coastal sea hunter from the far north. And he hadn’t been in Washington’s desert too long.
“He lived most of his life in coastal locations, north of the state of Washington,” said Doug Owsley, the book’s co-editor. “And in keeping with these findings you know if you look at Kennewick Man’s dental wear its reminiscent of working hides, and similar to really wear that we see in early Eskimo skeletons.”
Owsley says there’s still one question he’s dying to answer: What kind of rock is the stone point made from that’s buried in K-man’s hip? That would give clues to his routes across the North American landscape.
Most geneticists agree that Native Americans are descended from Siberians who crossed into America 26,000 to 18,000 years ago via a land bridge over the Bering Strait. But while genetic analysis of modern Native Americans lends support to this idea, strong fossil evidence has been lacking.
Now a nearly complete skeleton of a prehistoric teenage girl, newly discovered in an underwater cave in the Yucatán Peninsula, establishes a clear link between the ancient and modern peoples, scientists say.
Writing in the journal Science, the researchers report that they analyzed mitochondrial DNA — genetic material passed down through the mother — that was extracted from the skeleton’s wisdom tooth by divers. The analysis reveals that the girl, who lived at least 12,000 years ago, belonged to an Asian-derived genetic lineage seen only in Native Americans.
Though her skull, found intact, is more narrow and angular than those of modern Indians, and her face smaller and her features more protruding, “we know that at least the maternal ancestry is shared,” said an author of the study, James Chatters, a forensic anthropologist with Applied Paleoscience, a company in Bothell, Wash.
The reasons for the differences in skull size and shape are still a mystery, but modern American Indians may have evolved to have broader, larger skulls because of adaptations to different food, social or environmental conditions, Dr. Chatters said.
Angélique Corthals, a forensic anthropologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, who was not involved with the study, said the find was “very exciting” because it was a full skeleton.
“That’s really rare,” she continued. “They’ve been able to retrieve so much of the mitochondrial DNA; that’s what makes it monumental.”
The researchers also used radiocarbon dating to approximate the skeleton’s age.
They now hope to retrieve nuclear DNA to determine paternal ancestry and study the skeleton to understand the teenager’s health history, diet and body structure.
But that will have to wait: For now, the skeleton remains in the cave.
“Ultimately we’re going to have to retrieve her,” Dr. Chatters said.
Correction: May 16, 2014
An earlier version of a picture caption on the home page for this article misidentified one of the groups of people that scientists say are linked by a prehistoric skeleton. They are modern American Indians and Siberian ancestors who crossed the Bering Strait, not Siberian descendants.
The remains of a young boy, ceremonially buried some 12,600 years ago in Montana, have revealed the ancestry of one of the earliest populations in the Americas, known as the Clovis culture.
Published in this issue of Nature, the boy’s genome sequence shows that today’s indigenous groups spanning North and South America are all descended from a single population that trekked across the Bering land bridge from Asia (M. Rasmussen et al. Nature 506, 225–229; 2014). The analysis also points to an early split between the ancestors of the Clovis people and a second group, whose DNA lives on in populations in Canada and Greenland (see page 162).
But the research underscores the ethical minefield of studying ancient Native American remains, and rekindles memories of a bruising legal fight over a different human skeleton in the 1990s.
To avoid such a controversy, Eske Willerslev, a palaeobiologist at the University of Copenhagen who led the latest study, attempted to involve Native American communities. And so he embarked on a tour of Montana’s Indian reservations last year, talking to community members to explain his work and seek their support. “I didn’t want a situation where the first time they heard about this study was when it’s published,” he says.
The boy’s bones were found to date to the end of the Clovis culture, which flourished in the central and western United States between about 13,000 and 12,600 years ago. Carved elk bones found with the boy’s remains were hundreds of years older, suggesting that they were heirlooms. The ranch, owned by Melvyn and Helen Anzick, is the only site yet discovered at which Clovis objects exist alongside human bones. Most of the artefacts now reside in a museum, but researchers returned the human remains to the Anzick family in the late 1990s.
At that time, the Anzicks’ daughter, Sarah, was conducting cancer and genome research at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and thought about sequencing genetic material from the bones. But she was wary of stoking a similar debate to the one surrounding Kennewick Man, a human skeleton found on the banks of the Columbia River in Kennewick, Washington, in July 1996. Its discovery sparked an eight-year legal battle between Native American tribes, who claimed that they were culturally connected to the individual, and researchers, who said that the roughly 9,000-year-old remains pre-dated the tribes.
The US government sided with the tribes, citing the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). The act requires that human remains discovered on federal lands — as Kennewick Man was — are returned to affiliated tribes for reburial. But a court ruled that the law did not apply, largely because of the age of the remains, and ordered that Kennewick Man be stored away from public view in a museum.
Sarah Anzick sought the advice of local tribes over the Clovis boy, but she could not reach a consensus with the tribes on what to do. She gave up on the idea, stored the bones in a safe location and got on with her other research.
In 2009, archaeologist Michael Waters, of Texas A&M University in College Station, contacted Anzick with the idea of sending the remains to Willerslev’s lab. (In early 2010, the lab published one of the first genome sequences of an ancient human, a 4,000-year-old resident of Greenland; see M. Rasmussen et al. Nature 463, 757–762; 2010.) “I said, ‘I will allow you guys to do this, but I want to be involved,’” recalls Anzick, who has published more than a dozen papers in leading journals.
In Copenhagen, she extracted DNA from fragments of the boy’s skull ready for mitochondrial genome sequencing, which offers a snapshot of a person’s maternal ancestry. Back in Montana months later, she received the sequencing data and discovered that the genome’s closest match was to present-day Native Americans. “My heart just stopped,” she says.
Right to remains
After Willerslev’s team confirmed the link by sequencing the boy’s nuclear genome (a more detailed indicator of ancestry), Willerslev sought advice from an agency that handles reburial issues. He was told that, because the remains were found on private land, NAGPRA did not apply and no consultation was needed. Despite this, Willerslev made his own attempt to consult local tribes. This led to a meeting in September at the burial site, with Anzick, Willerslev and their co-author Shane Doyle, who works in Native American studies at Montana State University in Bozeman, and is a member of the Crow tribe.
“That place is very special to me, that’s my ancestral homeland.”
“That place is very special to me, that’s my ancestral homeland,” says Doyle. He told Willerslev and Anzick that they should rebury the child where he was found. “I think you need to put the little boy back where his parents left him,” Doyle recalls telling them.
Doyle and Willerslev then set off on a 1,500-kilometre road trip to meet representatives of four Montana tribes; Doyle later consulted another five. Many of the people they talked to had few problems with the research, Doyle says, but some would have preferred to have been consulted before the study started, and not years after.
Willerslev says that researchers studying early American remains should assume that they are related to contemporary groups, and involve them as early as possible. But it is not always clear whom to contact, he adds, particularly when remains are related to groups spread across the Americas. “We have to engage with Native Americans, but how you deal with that question in practice is not an easy thing,” he says.
Hank Greely, a legal scholar at Stanford University in California who is interested in the legal and ethical issues of human genetics, commends the approach of Willerslev’s team. But he says that there is no single solution to involving Native American communities in such research. “You’re looking to try to talk to the people who might be most invested in, or connected with, particular sets of remains,” he advises.
Dennis O’Rourke, a geneticist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, who studies ancient DNA from populations native to the islands around Alaska, notes that indigenous groups have varying concerns: some want remains reburied, others do not, for instance.
The Montana tribes overwhelmingly wanted the Clovis boy’s bones interred. Plans for a reburial ceremony, possibly at an undisclosed site, are now being hashed out, with the Crow Nation playing a lead role. It is expected to take place in the spring, after the ground thaws.
By Kevin Taylor, Indian Country Today Media Network
He had a name, not that we will ever know it.
He also had wounds—a spear point embedded deep in his hip that suggests battle; a half-dozen broken ribs, several dents in his head and a chipped-off piece of bone in his right shoulder socket that indicated he had been battered in a rough world.
But he was tough. Strong.
The shoulder injury alone is considered a career-ender when it happens today to fireballing relief pitchers, but the ancient hunter probably didn’t have retirement as an option. Then there’s the knapped-rock spear point, which, had it pierced his body an inch higher, would have killed him.
“He was a very robust and very large man. Well-muscled, especially in his right arm and left leg—he was a javelin thrower, more than likely an atlatl user. He was absolutely a hunter and he was tough as nails in his world. He had to keep moving to eat.”
This portrayal of a sturdy spear-hunter from around 9,500 years ago comes from Doug Owsley, an esteemed forensic anthropologist from the Smithsonian Institution. Owsley was sharing these observations in a richly detailed three-hour presentation, delivered without notes, in central Washington state last fall. There was a spillover crowd drawn to the tiny, Columbia River village of Wanapum—people hungry for the first real news in nearly a decade about the controversial skeleton known as Kennewick Man, or the Ancient One.
Owsley believes Kennewick Man was a visitor to these lands, not a resident. (AP)
There is still an open sore with Kennewick Man. It’s the chafe between science and spirituality, between people who say the remains have so much to tell us about the ancient human past that they should remain available for research, versus people who feel a kinship with the ancient bones and say they should be reburied to show proper reverence for the dead.
It has been almost 17 years since two young men trying to sneak into the annual hydroplane races in Kennewick, Washington, stumbled (literally) across a skeleton in the shallows of the Columbia River; the Ancient One has been caught in limbo ever since. He is in the custody of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which controls the waterways behind a series of federal dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers. The Ancient One is stored in a secured vault at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum in Seattle.
Owsley and seven other scientists sued the corps to keep the bones from being turned over to a coalition of area tribes for reburial, and the court battle has gone as high as the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, but is not yet settled. The Ninth Circuit, in February 2004, upheld a ruling that there’s no evidence Kennewick Man is related to any of the present-day Plateau Tribes.
It’s a common interpretation that the federal courts are saying Kennewick Man is not an Indian. Not so. The ruling is both more nuanced and less. More, because it says that a single skeleton as ancient as this one, found outside any context of community—village or ancient burial ground—doesn’t provide enough evidence to connect it, culturally or genetically, to a present-day Native group. Less, because the ruling came during an administrative hearing in which local Plateau tribes were not allowed to introduce evidence—oral tradition, ancient settlements—that could have connected the Ancient One to where he was found.
The real outcome, however, is that the Ancient One is likely to remain in his unmarked vault at the Burke for a long time.
What further chafes the Five Claimant Tribes, as they are known in court documents, is that human remains roughly as ancient as, or even older than, those of the Ancient One have been repatriated without any controversy via the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). I had the rare privilege of witnessing one such repatriation.
Going Home for Some
Not far from where Kennewick Man was found, there is a butte turned sepia with late autumn—dried weeds and tanned grasses and the brown of exposed basalt—a high, lonely overlook above the joining of the Palouse and Snake rivers. Two weeks after Owsley’s talk, Rex Buck Jr., a spiritual leader of the Wanapum, stands alongside a square, open grave. He removes a brass hand-bell from a pouch on his belt and raises it to a sky threatening rain.
The stillness here, the sense of remoteness is astonishing. It’s remarkable that this is now such an empty quadrant of Washington—somnolent Starbuck [population 129] and the Lyons Ferry Marina, with its pizza oven and fragrant coffee pot are the scant evidence of settlement on the far side of the Snake. The 15 of us atop the butte are seemingly the only humans around for miles.
It wasn’t always so. At the confluence below is the site of the ancient village of Palus, sunken now under the reservoir formed by Lower Monumental Dam. More than two centuries ago, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the explorer David Thompson and assorted other roamers and traders—Indian and white alike—stopped off at Palus and noted its importance as a well-established crossroads for commerce and travel from the coast to the plains.
It was also the main settlement of the Palus Indians, who lived in villages strung along the lower Snake River.
Palouse Falls (Flickr/Craig Goodwin)
The undulating top of the butte tells an even longer story. Over there, beyond Rex Buck’s left shoulder, a wide, dark bracket in the basalt rock face marks the opening to a cave. It’s Marmes, the Marmes Rockshelter—a potential world-class archaeological site that shows evidence of an estimated 14,000 years of continuous human occupation. It must be described as a “potential” world-class site because Marmes, just as it was beginning to be excavated, was flooded by the construction of Lower Monumental Dam, which is one of four federal dams built in the 1960s and 1970s to make the Snake River navigable to Lewiston, Idaho, some 465 miles from the sea. This was when the movement of wheat via barge was deemed more important than the migration of once-robust wild salmon that sustained Native cultures for thousands of years.
The remains being re-interred on this Tuesday morning are the third and perhaps final group of people who had once lived at Marmes that were located and repatriated under NAGPRA, and they are estimated to be in the range of 10,000 years old. People were roaming this area well before Kennewick Man. These ancient remains were among those rescued from the encroaching floodwaters of the Lower Monumental reservoir in the mid-to-late 1960s and stored at Washington State University for the past half-century.
So how is it these paleo remains are being repatriated under NAGPRA and Kennewick Man is not? Partly, it has to do with the “accidental” discovery of Kennewick Man’s remains and partly to caution over not igniting another fight with tribes.
Mary Collins, associate director of the Museum of Anthropology at Washington State University, says, “Because of the [controversy over the] Kennewick decision, it took awhile to build an argument for reburying the older ones.… In a nutshell, the difference between Kennewick and the Marmes was in fact that Kennewick was an inadvertent discovery.”
The important difference, Collins notes, is that Kennewick Man was found alone, while the remains of Marmes inhabitants were found in an organized dig that also revealed evidence of community and continuous human occupation at the site for millennia. “And that was the basis for arguing that they were appropriately repatriated as American Indians,” Collins says.
Jennifer Richman, senior assistant district counsel for the Corps of Engineers, Portland District, clarifies that the decision does not say the Marmes people are Palus people. “By just saying it’s more likely than not [the remains are] culturally affiliated with the tribes, we’re not then definitively saying that yes the Marmes remains are Palus, just that there’s a preponderance of evidence to show a connection there and a cultural affiliation,” Richman adds.
To some tribal people, the difference between the way NAGPRA treats Kennewick Man and the Marmes people is just semantics, or at best a bureaucratic distinction. Among Owsley’s findings since 2005 is evidence that confirms earlier reports from scientists working for the Corps of Engineers that the Ancient One was deliberately buried. Tribal people say this shows Kennewick Man was not a loner wandering in an empty world, but was loved enough by others to be buried after his death.
And after thousands of years in the earth, his erosion-caused reappearance must be corrected by reburial, they say. “He died in our land, and we have taken care of him for 10,000 years. Is he a man of this area? I believe so,” says Jackie Cook, repatriation specialist of the Colville Confederated Tribes.
The Wandering One
Owsley disagrees with that assertion. He says analysis of radioactive isotopes in the bones indicate Kennewick Man drank glacier-fed water, not necessarily Columbia River water, and that he ate a heavy marine diet, more likely to include seals rather than just salmon. Kennewick Man, Owsley concludes, was a coastal resident who traveled inland.
The reburial party contingent at the Marmes Rockshelter site (Kevin Taylor)
Members of the Five Claimant Tribes disagree, citing for instance that sea lions still chase migrating salmon as far upriver as the Bonneville Dam, some 146 miles from the ocean, and that there is archaeological evidence that shows sea lions came much farther inland before dams were built.
But this only shows there is need for more study, Owsley contends. “There are, to my mind, some collections that I think are so fundamental that they should be preserved for another generation of scientists with different questions—totally different questions—and better methods,” he says by telephone from his office at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. “I mean, you look at my 35-plus years of doing this and the way I analyze a skeleton today is totally different from what I did back then. What we can learn today are things I wasn’t even thinking about. And I have to feel Kennewick Man absolutely falls in that category.”
At Wanapum last fall, Owsley ended his presentation by describing two more tests he would like to conduct on Kennewick Man—one that examines dental enamel to ascertain Kennewick Man’s childhood diet, which could be a telling clue as to where he grew up; the other to use advancements in scanning technology to re-examine the spear point, which could determine precisely where it was quarried.
Owsley says he has made these proposals to the Army corps but has received no permissions. Richman, the corps’ lawyer dealing with Kennewick Man, says the agency has denied earlier proposals from Owsley that were deemed too destructive to the bones, and has not yet received formal proposals from Owsley on less-invasive procedures. Still, one asks, will Owsley do the two more tests and then return the Ancient One to the tribes for reburial?
“I don’t think that’s going to be my decision,” he says, noting that the corps still holds the remains. “My goal here is to really set a standard to explain what we know right now and also point to what we don’t know. Some of that can be answered with this man and some of that will, hopefully, be answered with other discoveries but I can tell you they are few and far between, they are exceedingly rare.”
Even some tribal members, such as Jackie Cook of the Colville, appreciate the glimpse science offers into the distant past, because that story is her story. But the scientists never seem to acknowledge that they are asking a lot of Native people whose “shared history” comes from having skeletons of their relatives and ancestors kidnapped from graves and kept in boxes or on shelves in museums and universities or private living rooms.
This is driven home by Armand Minthorn, a spiritual and political leader of the Umatilla and the first Indian to demand the return of Kennewick Man, just days after the bones were found. “When you suggest you can get so much information from these remains, that may be the case, however they’re ours. And they are sacred. Period. End of discussion,” Minthorn says.
Collins, of Washington State University, sees one good change that’s come from the bitter fight over Kennewick Man. “As a teacher looking at the next generation of scientists, their understanding of the need to address multiple interests and multiple perspectives is day-and-night difference than a generation ago…they are much more sensitive to the context of addressing other peoples’ concerns and not assuming that your concerns have greater value than theirs.”
‘He Wants to Go Home’
Cook is one of four tribal women who prepared the Marmes remains for reburial—with smudging, prayer, song and muslin. She would love to experience a similar moment with Kennewick Man. “It’s on my bucket list.”
She then tells the following story: “Several years ago we [several Plateau tribes] were doing a joint claim with the Burke Museum and it was very convoluted. We spent a full week there.”
Throughout the week, Cook and others could only move around with an escort from museum repatriation officers. “And we would say, ‘Is that the door? Is that one the door?’ He had his own vault and at that time they were keeping his location secret. And the repatriation officer would just smile and wouldn’t answer us.
“And so the week went on and we were all working together and at one point I said, ‘Well I don’t care. I am just old enough not to care if they put me in jail. If I could get him out I would take him with us and we would rebury him.’ It was very light-hearted and jovial but on the last day we were loading up and the alarms went off and everybody turned around and asked, ‘Where’s Jackie?’ I was in the back of the room and we were laughing and I said, ‘See? See? Listen to your heart, he wants to come.’”
Some months later, Cook was meeting with Burke staffers, when they told her the alarm that day was from the Ancient One’s vault. “He has his own alarm and it was his alarm,” she says.
The museum staff didn’t know what set it off that day, Cook says. Burke collections manager Laura Phillips confirms the anecdote, and adds that she doesn’t know what set off Kennewick Man’s alarm.
Cook has a good guess: “He wants to go home.”
Birdsong and Pizza
Back atop the butte, Cook and other women stand in a line at the foot of the open grave, men stand to one side. The women wrap themselves in shawls. Buck, who is latest in a long line of Wanapum spiritual leaders, slices the hand-bell down from overhead and rings out a rhythm. He begins to sing in the old language—sonorous and pure. All the Indians join, the men’s voices deep, the women lilting. It was a gray day, high cloudy, but as younger men carried the boxes of remains from an SUV—bones wrapped in muslin and prayer, remains separated by sex, bones placed in the ground on fresh-woven tule mats—as these bones were going in the ground and people were singing, the sun broke out, and over the singing there was heard birdsong.
It seems there is often such a moment as this, when good words are said aloud and good songs are sung in the old language and it seems as if the world responds. After, we all went for pizza at the Lyons Ferry marina across the Snake. “You can tell people you were at a traditional Indian feast. We like pizza!”
There were jokes and good humor up and down the long table. After all, people were in a fine mood after returning the remains of the Marmes people to some very ground that, quite likely, they had stood upon. As the pizzas arrived, there was also serious discussion of how much work is left. As universities and museums become aware of NAGPRA and comply with the law this is the easy part. What’s tougher will be tracking down remains taken by artifact traders and private collectors—grave robbers to some.
When we’re leaving, I mention the sun break to the Umatilla guy with the long, thin braids ending at his breastbone, and he smiles. Coincidence or Creator it don’t matter, Tuesday morning people came home. From 10,000 years ago they came home. And the Earth smiled to see them again, the birds sang.
It would be wonderful to offer this grace to Kennewick Man as well. Because it’s possible the Earth has heard his name and remembers it, even if we do not.