Two college students from Kennewick, Washington, found a human skull while wading in the Columbia River shallows that summer of 1996. The cops were contacted. Law enforcement officials called in Benton County coroner Floyd Johnson, who was perplexed by the skull and then contacted local archaeologist James Chatters for help.
In the waning hours of the day, Chatters and the coroner went back to the scene and dug up nearly a complete skeleton. The remains were taken back to Dr. Chatters’ laboratory, where they were laid out on a table.
Although ancient, the skull didn’t seem to be of Native American origin. Chatters first assumed it belonged to a pioneer or trapper from the early days of exploration. However, the teeth were worn down to the roots and free of cavities, both features typical of prehistoric teeth, suggesting a diet low in sugar and starch. They had the bone tissue carbon dated. Ultimately, it was determined to be older than 9 thousand years.
From that time on, the story of Kennewick Man, one of the oldest skeletons ever recovered in the Americas, was a topic of intense interest. It’s also one of the most hotly debated collections of bones around the globe.
But next month, owing to a long-awaited, major scientific study co-edited by the physical anthropologist Douglas Owsley, of the Smithsonian Institution, the mottled, pale brown bones will finally come into sharp focus, after two decades of speculation.
Conflicting Legal Opinions
As curiosity about Kennewick Man grew, the plot took an unexpected turn. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers seized the remains before they could be studied any further by scientists.
The Corps’ actions were authorized by the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. (NAGRPA). In addition to other things, this statute mandates that federal agencies The Native American Indian tribe involved with the remains must be informed if the agency determines that they are of Native American descent. Then, at the Indian community’s request, the body must be returned to the community for burial in accordance with Indian tradition.
There were a lot of offended Native Americans because of this. They thought that the ancestors’ souls wouldn’t be at peace unless the bodies were properly buried. They felt that the white people’s decision to keep the bodies for scientific study betrayed their respect for Indian traditions.
These issues were addressed by NAGRPA. Museums receiving government funding were also subject to the law, as they were expected to document their collections, determine their origins, and return any cultural property to their rightful tribe.
According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the Kennewick Man falls under this regulation. It concluded that the Kennewick bones were over 9,000 years old since they were discovered on Umatilla Indian tribe grounds.
They concluded that the age of the site precluded any other explanation for the bones except Native American. The Umatilla Indians were among the many Washington state and northern Oregon tribes that the corps informed of the discovery.
The tribes have called for the bones to be returned to them so they can be studied, with some even demanding they be reburied right away. Corps personnel confiscated the remains and placed them in storage until the 30-day waiting period for other claims expired.
The scientists’ attorneys said the Corps of Engineers erred in concluding that Kennewick Man belonged to a preexisting Indian culture. Scientists said there was no evidence that the bones were ancient or that they were discovered on tribal land.
They said that the bones were too ancient to be connected to the Umatilla or any of the other tribes and that only additional research would establish whether or not the remains are even those of a Native American within the meaning of the act. The experts contended that they should be allowed to research the bones if they were not sacred.
The Debate Over Anthropology
Scientists agree that the Bering land bridge was used by Native Americans’ ancestors to reach North America. Once reaching from Siberia to Alaska, it is now submerged beneath the ocean.
Scientists determined that these ancient travelers were of the “Mongoloid” type because of their origins in Asia. Today’s generations of Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans are similarly advanced. Modern American Indians were also classed as Mongoloid due to their shared physical traits, especially those manifested in the skull.
There is disagreement amongst scientists as to what this could mean. There is growing speculation that at least some of the earliest Americans were of European ancestry. These individuals share ancestry with Europeans and Middle Easterners.
Scientists are divided about whether or not an initial wave of Caucasians crossed the land bridge into Asia, but many now feel that Caucasians were more numerous in Asia than was previously believed. This hypothesis proposes that Native Americans trace their ancestry back to a mixture of Caucasian and Mongoloid settlers.
However, there are scientists who disagree and say that the presence of Caucasian traits doesn’t show the skeletons are actually Caucasoid. They contend that the elongated skulls and squared-off features of the Asian population may have evolved independently of the Caucasian people.
Where Did the Bones Go?
As was customary among the various groups, the reburial took place in a solemn private ceremony. Tribes still consider Kennewick Man to be their ancestor, even though his remains have been in storage at the Burke Museum for years. They need the bones returned so they can rebury them.
To restrict their search for their homeland, experts might perform chemical analysis on a single tooth to determine what the boy consumed as a child. DNA could potentially be extracted from a tooth. Because of the rapid development of biomolecular science, it may be able to determine the illnesses Kennewick Man died from within the next five to ten years.