Ninevah Relief

The Kennewick Man Skeleton

Problems in the Repatriation of Ancient Skeletal Remains

The Basic Facts of the Case

The basic facts of the case can be found in Watkins (2000 - prior to approx. March 2000), the Tri-City Herald's Virtual Interpretive Centre on the Kennewick Case, and on the National Parks Service web pages. See the library and web-based resources sections below.

The bones were discovered on Sunday July 28th, 1996 in the Columbia River in Kennewick, Washington State (near to Seattle), by two spectators at a powerboat race; Thomas and Dave Deacy. They were found on land currently owned by the US Army Corps of Engineers.

The bones were identified by James Chatters the forensic anthropologist for the local Benton County Coroner, Floyd Johnson. Chatters noted that the bones were not from a murder victim, had the worn teeth of a pre-contact Native American, and were of a colour that suggested that they were not recent in age. The absence of scavenger tooth marks on the bones suggested that the body had been buried soon after death. Finally Chatters also noted that the skull shape appeared to be 'caucasoid' and not 'mongoloid' like modern Native Americans . Journalists have since translated this phrase into Caucasian - like modern Europeans - and have therefore given this anatomical statement a potentially different slant to that originally intended by Chatters.

Samples from the bones were quickly sent for radiocarbon dating to confirm Chatters original observation that they were not recent. As a result, the skeleton was dated to 8410 +/- 60 C14 yrs bp by R. Ervin Taylor at the University of California at Berkeley. This translates as approximately 9500 yrs bp in real years. At this time it was also noted that there was evidence of a prehistoric stone projectile point embedded in the pelvis, that conformed to a shape known to have been made more than 5000 years ago.

In September 1996, as an inadvertent discovery, the bones were taken into custody, pending a NAGPRA claim, by the US Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps of Engineers are the body mandated by the US government for dealing with these matters since they are the landowners of the site where the bones were found. The army informed local native American tribes with links to this area of land under their NAGPRA obligations so at to allow Native Americans to make a claim for repatriation. The bones were duly claimed by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian reservation (comprising the Umatilla, the Colville, the Yakama, the Naz Perce and the Wanapum), because the Columbia River is in land which falls within the ancestral territory of the Umatilla Indian tribes. NAGPRA judgments have usually assumed that any individual dated to prior to before 1492 AD (prior to the first recognised date of European contact in America) should be recognised as Native American and be repatriated. The Umatilla believe that there should be no special pleading against this.

In late September 1996, the US Army Corps of Engineers announced their intention to repatriate the skeletal remains.

In October 1996, 8 scientists (Robson Bonnichsen, C. Loring Brace, George W. Gill, C. Vance Haynes Jr., Richard L. Jantz, Douglas Owsley, Dennis J. Stanford and D. Gentry Steele) filed a lawsuit to block this repatriation. Their lawsuit challenged the determination that the skeletal remains could be identified as Native American. Furthermore, they also argued that their civil rights had been infringed since they had not been allowed to scientifically study the remains because they were not Native American. In late 1996, the Asatru Folk Assembly, a California-based organisation following an old Norse religion also filed suit arguing that if the remains were Caucasian, they (the Asatru) might be culturally affiliated to the remains.

In February 1997, U.S. Magistrate, Judge Jelderks, from the District Court refused to dismiss the lawsuits from the scientists and the Asatru, and on March 23rd, the US Army Corps of Engineers rescinded its decision to repatriate the skeletal remains. Jelderks raised a series of issues concerning the implementation of NAGPRA, that he wished to be resolved prior to any decision concerning the fate of the skeletal remains.

In June 1997, Francis McManamon, a consulting archaeologist for the National Parks Service, responding to Jelderks, noted that NAGPRA did not require a proven biological connection between the skeletal remains and a Native American Tribe making a claim for repatriation. He also noted that NAGPRA did not preclude scientific study of skeletal remains in order to determine affiliation where a concern about the attribution of affiliation existed. He suggested that all and any further studies should be undertaken in consultation with appropriate native Americans.

Jelderks gave given the National Parks Service until 24th March 2000 to make a decision on the repatriation of the 350 bones. In July 1999, the National Parks Service presented a series of non-destructive studies on (i) the initial skeletal assessment of the Kennewick remains, (ii) the osteological assessment of the skeleton, (iii) an analysis of the sediments in which the remains had been found, and (iv) an analysis of the projectile point embedded in the skeleton. None of these studies adequately confirmed the affiliation of the skeleton. In September 1999, the National Parks Service commissioned further radiocarbon dates of the skeleton, and in January 2000, the Service commissioned a further set of studies, including a DNA analysis (against the stated wishes of the Native Americans) to help clarify the matter of affiliation.

In September 2000, following the second set of analyses by the National Parks Service, Bruce Babbitt, the Secretary of State (in the last Clinton administration) determined that the skeletal remains of Kennewick Man should be repatriated since they could be identified as Native American.

In late 2000, an appeal against the decision by Babbitt, was filed by Bonnichsen et al.

In late August 2002, Judge Jelderks, for the Appeal Court, presented his judgment in favour of the 8 scientists. He rules that, amongst other things, the Kennewick Man skeleton has not been shown to be Native American and is therefore not subject to the provisions of NAGPRA. Rather it should be treated as an archaeological resource under the terms of the Archaeological Resource Protection Act, mandating full scientific study and curation in the pursuit of knowledge in the interests of all citizens if the U.S.A.

In November 2002, an appeal was filed against the judgment by Jelderks by both the US Government Department of the Interior and the 5 Native Americans tribes. Judgement on this appeal awaits, and meanwhile, the skeletal remains are kept in store.

The Scientific Facts: dating and DNA

Further radio carbon dates now stand at 8130 +/- 40 yrs bp; 8410 +/- 40 yrs bp, and 6940 +/- 30 yrs bp, and 5750 +/- 100 yrs bp. Dating labs state that there is only a little carbon or collagen in the bones and that they are therefore, very difficult to date accurately. (Source

Full DNA test results are still awaiting. Preliminary DNA studies, undertaken on behalf of the National Parks Service, have indicated that any genetic material in the bones is too poorly preserved to enable a full DNA analysis and a resolution to the question of the identity / relationships of the skeleton through this route.

The Case for the Physical Anthropologists

The Explicit Case

Kennewick Man is a unique find, whose age and skeletal form almost certainly make him a not directly related to present-day Native Americans. These skeletal remains represents evidence of another (earlier?) migration of people into the Americas. Proper scientific investigation is necessary to reveal all the evidence that this skeleton can tell us. This investigation will require reconstruction for a full range of non-destructive skeletal measurements to be taken, as well as some destructive analyses such as DNA analysis. Kennewick Man is one of a very small number of skeletons that can reveal this information. Except through skeletal examination (of Kennewick Man and others - Spirit Cave, Hourglass Cave, etc.), it is highly unlikely that we shall ever be able to understand completely the complex process of colonisation of the Americas.

The proper study of these skeletal remains will provide scientific knowledge that is of benefit to all citizens of the U.S.A., and therefore such studies should be legally permitted within the framework of NAGPRA.

In 1998 a group called the Friends of America's Past (FOAP) was formed. According to the Friends of America's Past web site, 'Friends of America's Past is a nonprofit tax-exempt organization dedicated to promoting and advancing the rights of scientists and the public to learn about America's past. Our mission is to keep the door of scientific inquiry open and to work to maintain the integrity of scientific inquiry in this country. We organized in 1998 to alert the public to the issues and implications of the Kennewick Man lawsuit. We are based in Portland, Oregon.' They are effectively a political pressure group to lobby for the rights of anthropologists to study early human remains, by making the case for the scientific value of the study of these remains, and pointing out some of the apparent inconsistencies that have arisen in the NAGPRA repatriation process.

The Implicit Case

We are doing scientific work that is more truthful than Native American oral histories. We must be allowed to pursue the research goals of our scientific community. If we must accept Native American oral histories does this mean that 'scientific' anthropology is not the real way of understanding the past. NAGPRA legislation is not really meant to stop this type of scientific study - surely?

The Case for the Native Americans

The Explicit Case

According to NAGPRA legislation, Native Americans can claim skeletal remains for repatriation that to whom they are culturally affiliated. Since the Kennewick skeleton was found on lands to which the Confederated tribes of the Umatilla have documented historic ties, they have a legal right to claim these bones for repatriation.

The oral histories of the Umatilla tell them that they have lived in the area for 10,000 years, and that Native Americans were the first peoples to have lived in North America. The Umatilla do not believe that the analysis of skull shape (especially one 1 individual) is a valid means of 'racial' investigation - and nor do many anthropologists. A larger sample is needed. Furthermore, the Umatilla believe that dead members of the tribe should be treated with respect. Deceased individuals must be buried as quickly as possible and remain buried.

The Implicit Case

If Kennewick Man is not reburied, then scientists will be encouraged to petition against the repatriation of other skeletons. These skeletons will be progressively more recent in date, and we shall soon return to a situation in which the excavation and museum curation of Native American skeletal remains is once again commonplace. If Native Americans can be shown to be not the first colonists of the Americas, what does this do to their rights negotiated with the US Government?

Library Resources

There are three books available that discuss the Kennewick Man case and the subject of reburial. Two of these books (Thomas and Watkins) were published in 2000 and, therefore, do not cover the statement by Bruce Babbitt in September 2000 that the remains could be identified as Native American and should be repatriated, nor the recent judgment by Judge Jelderks that scientific study of the remains should be allowed prior to repatriation. Thomas is an archaeologist, whilst Watkins is both a Native American and an archaeologist. The third book, by James Chatters, dates to 2001, and, therefore, does not cover the recent judgement by Jelderks.

Chatters, J. 2001. Ancient Encounters: Kennewick Man and the First American. New York, Simon and Schuster.

Thomas, D.H. 2000. Skull Wars: Archaeology and the Search for Native American Identity. Basic Books, New York.

Watkins, J. 2000. Indigenous Archaeology: American Indian Values and Scientific Practice. Walnut Creek, Altamira Press (See chapter 9. A copy of this chapter is available in the Student Resource Centre)

For an essay on the philosophical sides of the Kennewick dispute see:-

Crawford, S. 2000. (Re)Constructing Bodies: Semiotic Sovereignty and the Debate over Kennewick Man. In D. Mihesuah (ed.) Repatriation Reader: Who Owns American Indian Remains? Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press.

Web Resources

The fullest and most up-to-date resources on this dispute are to be found on the internet. Pretty much anything you ever wanted to know about the Kennewick Man case is available online, including technical summaries, and legal judgments.

A good way to start, however, is from the popular perspective of the Tri-City Herald's Kennewick Man Virtual Interpretive Centre. They have an up to date online archive of copies of newspaper articles, as well as details of the recent court cases and the current appeal. To help you get the facts in order, they also have an excellent detailed timeline of the Kennewick Man story so far. This site gives an excellent perspective of the ways in which this case has gone beyond the boundaries of archaeology and the courts.

The official US government response can be found at the National Parks Service web page devoted to the Kennewick Case. Here you will find online copies of the documents dealing with the attempt to determine the affiliation of the skeletal remains , and upon which Bruce Babbitt decided to repatriate the remains in 2000. These documents reports on both the non-destructive analyses, as well as the destructive analyses such as the radiocarbon dating of the skeleton and the DNA testing. The reports presented here are long and detailed, but give a clear statement of the case that can be presented in favour of repatriation. A copy of the letter from Babbitt mandating the repatriation of the skeleton is also included.

The case for the Scientists can best be found on the Friends of America's Past web site. This site has a full set of resources on the Kennewick Case. This is the best site on which to locate the full details of the recent court appeals and the judgment by Judge Jelderks (2002) in which it was decided that repatriation of Kennewick Man should not proceed without allowing time for the scientists to examine the skeleton in detail. Follow links through to the 'Court Documents'. There is also a document outlining the planned investigations by Bonnichsen et al. so that you can how they plan to study these remains. There are also more critical comments concerning the application of NAGPRA in the past, particularly in respect of the identification of identity of human remains. On this site you can also download a pdf format article An Anthropological Perspective on Magistrate Jelderks' Kennewick Man Decision that makes a case against the 2002 Jelderks judgment on both legal and anthropological grounds.

The case for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla is less well-documented on the internet. Their basic case, however, can be found at the internet journal site for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla. The view of the Society for American Archaeology can also be found online. Click here

Almost since the moment Kennewick Man was located other groups apart from Anthropologists and native Americans have claimed an interest in these remains. the most intriguing of these is perhaps the group Asatru Folk Assembly, who claim to represent the original Viking settlers of North America. They have an extensive series of interests in Kennewick Man, for whom they have even held a welcoming ceremony. Their web site includes some interesting sections complaining about the indiscriminate and abusive use of Indigenous American beliefs by recent non-indigenous Americans. Their web site also states what they would have done with the skeleton. Have a look at this and see what you think of their approach.

If you find that you need to know more, just type 'Kennewick Man' into the Google search engine, and see how many links it comes up with.

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