For Kennewick Man, a return from the dead

Nearly 16 years and numerous lawsuits after the discovery of his 9,200 year-old skeleton, scientists can finally tell us a bit more about Kennewick Man.
Crosscut archive image.

Kennewick Man's bones.

Nearly 16 years and numerous lawsuits after the discovery of his 9,200 year-old skeleton, scientists can finally tell us a bit more about Kennewick Man.

If Kennewick man had stayed hidden for just one more month, most of the tough, widely-roaming hunter from the West Coast might have never been found.

A few weeks before the Tri-Cities' July 1996 hydroplane races, high flows in the Columbia River likely eroded the shoreline beneath Kennwick Man's shoreline grave, causing his skeleton to drop into the river. A few weeks later, the river swelled again — enough to scatter Kennewick Man's bones along the Columbia's bottom. 

But West Richland college students Will Thomas, then 21, and Dave Deacy, then 19, hit a month-long sweet spot in the skeleton's 9,200-year journey through time when the pals decided to hang out with some brews between races in a clump of woods a few hundred feet upstream from the hydro course. They waded into the water, and Thomas stubbed his toe about 10 feet offshore. "Hey, we have a human head," Thomas joked. He thrust his hand about 1 1/2 feet underwater and grabbed what felt like a big rock.

It was a skull that stared back at him.

At the moment, the pair was more interested in ladies. They stashed the skull in a tiny wooded column, figuring it wouldn't go anywhere. After the next race, they got the skull, found a cop, and put the cranium in a beat-up old white bucket. Everyone figured it was a drowning or murder victim. A later search turned up the rest of the skeleton.

A month later, local anthropologist James Chatters determined the skeleton to be 9,200 years old.

That announcement set off a long federal court battle between Northwest Indian tribes and several anthropologists over whether Kennewick Man should be studied or reburied. The tribes contended he was Native American and their ancestor, and should be returned for burial under the Native Graves and Repatriation Act. Scientific study of Native American remains is considered spiritually sacrilegious under tribal belief. The scientists saw a rare opportunity for study: the number of full American skeletons that old is less than five. The scientists ultimately won in court, helped along by the fact that Kennewick Man is so old he could not be concretely linked to any modern tribes.

This week, 16 years after his discovery, many of Kennewick Man's secrets were finally made public at a briefing by Smithsonian Institute forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley. Owsley, who has studied Kennewick Man for nearly a decade, released new information about the skeleton to a group of more than 150 people on Wednesday. The group, which gathered at the Grant County PUD headquarters near the Wanapum dam,  including members of the Wanapum tribe. On Tuesday, he briefed Inland Northwest tribal leaders in Ellensburg.

Kennewick Man, Owsley announced to the crowd, was a long-range wandering hunter, likely from the Pacific Coast 200-plus miles away. "He's a really hardy soul. He's a really tough guy," he said. The middle-aged wanderer, scientists believe, was 5-foot 7 or 8 inches, theoretically 161 pounds, with a major league baseball-caliber right throwing arm and a Polynesian-like face with good-enough teeth for a "fabulous smile." 

"Kennewick Man is absolutely expressive in telling us about his life," Owsley said.

Wanapum tribal elder Rex Buck Jr., wasn't as happy about the photos of Kennewick Man shown Tuesday and Wednesday. The images, he said, were hard for tribal members to look at because of the tribe's beliefs about the sanctity of their dead and displaying the actual bones. Still, tribal leaders hold out hope that meeting with scientists will start talks for the eventual reburial of Kennewick Man.

The facts about Kennewick Man were a long time coming. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the Columbia River shoreline through the Tri-Cities, initially claimed ownership of the skeleton and tried to send it to area Native American tribes under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990.

But eight anthropologists, led by Owsley, contested that proposed repatriation, pointing to Kennewick Man's potential contributions to science and the fact that he could not be linked to any specific area tribe. In 1996 the group filed a lawsuit with a U.S. District Court in Portland. Five Indian nations — the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Yakama Indian Nation, the Nez Perce Tribe, and the Colville and Warm Springs nations — teamed up to fight the anthropologists in court, contending that the repatriation law covered Kennewick Man, and that scientific examinations disrespected Native American beliefs about the sanctity of their dead. The Wanapum, though not a federally recognized tribe because they never signed any treaties with the United States, nonetheless supported the others in this matter

In 2002, Judge John Jelderks ruled in the anthropologists' favor. The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that ruling in 2004. The Corps, which remains Kennewick Man's legal guardian, put him in the Burke Museum, a neutral site agreeable to both the tribes and scientists. Today Kennewick Man is stored in numerous specially designed boxes in the Burke Museum's nondescript, but electronically secure basement. The museum is mum on his exact location for security reasons.

Temperature and humidity sensors monitor each storage locker. The greatest room climate changes occur when a locker is opened. The bones are handled as sparingly as possible, since merely holding them — even with the required protective gloves — can rub off thin bits of irreplaceable matter. Meanwhile, no one else besides the litigation's plaintiffs — and Chatters in the 1990s — have studied the bones.

Even after they finally began in 2006, scientific studies dragged out for six years. The scientists were juggling numerous other long in-depth projects and the studies themselves were extensive. Scans, molds and models were made. Countless bone fractures were sorted out — pre-death, post-mortem and post-post-mortem (thousands of years later). Calcium carbonate and algae deposits on the bones were analyzed. Teeth — only one molar was missing — were studied. 

Those studies have led to two books. The first, Their Skeletons Speak: Kennewick Man and The Paleoamerican World, by Owsley and science writer Susan Walker, came out this month as a public-friendly look at the bones. Another super-thick scientific book, written by numerous scientists, is due out in another 14 months according to Owsley, who led the studies and is editing the book.

But what those books won't say is how Kennewick Man died. That's the hardest question of all. "I do not know. It will take someone with better eyes than I to tell what killed him," Owsley said. At least for now, some facts about Kennewick Man are staying buried. 


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at and on Twitter at @johnstang_8