After 9,000 years on a riverbank in Washington and 20 more being studied by scientists in a museum, a passionate debate over the origins of Kennewick Man has finally ended. The so-called “Ancient One” is indeed Native American, as local tribes always thought, and he will undergo a traditional burial to begin his “journey back to the land.”
According to the Christian Science Monitor, DNA tests have proven that he’s more related to a local tribe than any other population on Earth, quashing earlier theories that he had entirely different origins.
The Paleoamerican Kennewick Man was found along the banks of the Columbia River in Kennewick, Washington, in 1996. A year later, Umatilla tribe trustee Armand Minthorn was convinced of the ancient remains’ true origins, Smithsonian reported.
“If this individual is truly over 9,000 years old, that only substantiates our belief that he is Native American. From our oral histories, we know that our people have been part of this land since the beginning of time….We already know our history.”
Science has now proven them right. Because “the remains were kept out for science,” as evolutionary biologist Eske Willerslev put it, they were able to examine DNA from his finger bone. Scientists had to wait to do this until the technology caught up with their needs; Kennewick Man’s genes were very degraded, and the latest in DNA isolation and sequencing were required to examine the sample, Discovery News reported.
They compared the bone to saliva samples from members of the Colville Tribe and determined that while they couldn’t assign the Ancient One to a specific group, he is most closely related to them.
In addition to his origins, scientists have determined that Kennewick Man was a muscular fellow at 163 pounds and a height of five feet, seven inches. He died at age 40, hunted deer and antelope but ate fish and marine mammals, and suffered and survived two serious injuries, including a projectile point in his hip.
His modern-day burial comes after years of legal debate and controversy that began the second he was found.
The discovery was touted for its value to scientists, who wanted to study him to learn more about where early Americans came from. But Native Americans wanted a respectful burial almost immediately. Anthropologists then sued to study the remains while declaring that the bones revealed no “Native American characteristics.”
Five tribes — the Colville, Yakama, Umatilla, Nez Perce, and Wanapum — all claimed Kennewick Man as one of their own and eligible for re-burial under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
A court ruled in favor of anthropologists in 2004 since the claims of the tribes couldn’t be proved and citing analyses that linked Kennewick Man to indigenous Japanese or Polynesian peoples.
But a 2015 DNA analysis that proved he is indeed Native American ended the debate, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the bones because they were found on federal land, has finally acknowledged what tribal leaders always knew.
“Now we want to collectively do what is right, and bring our relative back for reburial,” said Yakama Nation Chairman JoDe Goudy.
The tribes are now working to forward the burial of the Ancient One. The Colville, Yakama, Umatilla, Nez Perce, and Wanapum Indians must all submit to authorities documents attesting to their connection. Chuck Sams, the spokesman for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, said everyone will likely file a joint claim to speed the burial process.
“[Kennewick Man] has been displaced, and we continue to offer our prayers and our hopes for a safe journey back to the land again.”
The earliest time his cultural ties could be established and burial then moved forward is next February.
[Photo by Elaine Thompson/AP Images]