DNA Results May Solve Mystery of Kennewick Man’s Origins

Kennewick Man DNA

Since they were first discovered in 1996 buried in the banks of the Columbia River, scientists and Native American tribal members have been engaged in a fierce tug of war over the skeletal remains of Kennewick Man. Now, DNA results on Kennewick Man’s remains may bring this conflict to a close although what happens in the battle from here is very much in question.

The remains of Kennewick Man were discovered by two college students in 1996. Initially, the skull was found and the incident reported to police. The coroner was uncertain about the origin of the skull and contacted an archaeologist for his help. Visiting the site where the skull was found, an almost complete skeleton was eventually assembled with the pieces that were found.

Puzzling over the age of the remains, the archaeologist discovered the tip of a stone spear point embedded in the hip, and he initially thought that the remains might be those of an early settler. The skull lacked the characteristic that were typical for Native American groups and were thought at different times to possibly be Caucasian or Polynesian. After sending off a sample for carbon dating, to his surprise, the skeleton was found to be 9,000 years old.

The land where the skeleton was found is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, who quickly took possession of the remains after learning of their age. The USACE contacted Native American tribes who wanted the remains turned over to them for reburial under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (AGPRA). They considered the remains to be those of an ancestor and according to the tribes, “From our oral histories, we know that our people have been part of this land since the beginning of time. We do not believe that our people migrated here from another continent, as the scientists do.”

The USACE planned to turn the remains for reburial without the opportunity for any further study of the remains. Scientists who wished to examine the remains and even members of Congress pressured the USACE to allow study before turning the remains over. In fact, it was a requirement of the AGPRA to determine tribal affiliation and, if no relation to present day tribes was found, then the AGPRA would not apply. No progress was made in getting access to Kennewick Man’s remains.

It took a lawsuit to get the USACE’s attention but in ultimately federal courts ruled that, “because Kennewick Man’s remains are so old and the information about his era is so limited, the record does not permit the Secretary [of the Interior] to conclude reasonably that Kennewick Man shares special and significant genetic or cultural features with presently existing indigenous tribes, people, or cultures.” With this decision, the AGPRA was determined not to apply. The USACE maintained possession of Kennewick Man but allowed scientists access for study in 2005 and 2006 for 16 days.

On January 17, the Seattle Times reported that scientists conducting a DNA analysis on samples from the skeleton “feel that Kennewick has normal, standard Native-American genetics.” They also informed the USACE that, “At present there is no indication he has a different origin than North American Native American.” The researchers’ DNA results have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, though a change in this conclusion seems unlikely.

This DNA revelation is likely to reignite the battle over Kennewick Man which has been called the “most important skeleton ever found in North America,” and scientists would consider its loss significant. Whether the DNA results will provide Native American tribes grounds for reversing the earlier federal court decision on Kennewick Man’s remains is yet to be determined.