Mystery of the 8,500-year-old Washington bones solved?

Crosscut archive image.

Scuplted bust of Kennewick Man using forensic facial reconstruction, by sculptor Amanda Danning.

Native American tribes and Western scientists often have had a contentious relationship, but a new article in the journal Nature has brought tribal members and science in line on the ancestry of Kennewick Man, an 8,500-year-old fossil that five Northwest tribes have claimed as their own.

A new study of DNA extracted from one of K-Man’s hand bones appears to resolve questions about the ancestry. At a June 18 press conference at Seattle’s Burke Museum, the scientist in charge of the investigation – Dr. Eske Willerslev, director of the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen – confirmed that that the bones are that of a Native American, and that his genetic signature has a close match to the Colville tribe in northeastern Washington State.

The Colville are one of the five Northwest tribes that have claimed K-Man—or the Ancient One as they call him—as one of their own.

Ruth Jim, a member of the Yakama tribal council, said of the report, “They have proven what we as people have always known.” Jim Boyd, chair of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation council, added that his people are “happy with the outcome, but we knew what the result would be.”

Crosscut archive image.
Jim Boyd, council chair of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, appealing for K-Man’s repatriation in light of the establishment of genetic affiliation with the tribe.

The issue of who K-Man “belongs” to has been a national controversy since 1996, when the bones were discovered eroding out of the banks of the Columbia River in Kennewick, WA. An early examination revealed that the bones were old, with a skull that was said to have “Caucasoid” characteristics. This led to theories that Kennewick Man could be of European, Polynesian or Asian origin. Images of K-Man portrayed him as looking like a Star Trek character or a bearded warrior, images at odds with a Native American background.

Scientists wanted to study the rare bones further, while local tribes demanded that they be returned for reburial in line with the federal Native Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The dispute ended up in federal court. It has been the subject of books and documentaries.

As a result of the court fight, in 1998 K-Man’s bones ended up at Seattle’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, a “neutral site.” They rest there until a final determination can be made about who K-Man is and where he might belong. Researchers have been given limited access to the bones, and tribal members have been able to perform ceremonial rites, but they are not available for public inspection.

The DNA sample used for the Danish study was extracted from bones previously tapped for genetic material. This time around, new technology and techniques permitted enough DNA to be extracted to give researchers what they claim are very good results. The research team included scientists from Copenhagen, but also U.S. institutions such as Stanford, Southern Methodist University, and University of California Berkeley.

The DNA was compared against samples from North and South American tribes, and with other available databases. Some tribes refused to provide DNA samples—the Umatilla, for example—while the Colville, after much discussion and consultation with elders, decided to participate in the study.

Research teams said conclusions about ancestry derived from a single skull were inconclusive, as skull shapes vary a good deal within populations. Further, some characteristics are due to environmental factors, not inheritance. The DNA tests provided a much more comprehensive and definitive answer about ancestry.

The obvious question is, what next?

The tribes would like immediate repatriation. A secret, reburial site has been agreed upon by the five tribes. Now that science has proven the bones belong to a Native American and are a close relation, they want the remains treated as sacred, not scientific. Anthony Johnson of the Nez Perce made an impassioned plea for their return. “You have confirmation. You have the truth,” he said. “The reburial of Kennewick Man is important to Native American healing.”

Johnson said he had participated in a conference call with the Army Corps of Engineers—the federal agency that has ultimate control of the bones—and that it raised concerns the Corps might seek to go through a long, five-step process before repatriating the bones. Dr. Allyson Brooks, head of Washington State’s Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, disagreed with the idea of an elaborate process.

“It’s over. It’s time to return the bones to the tribes for reburial,” Brooks said. “I’m very disappointed to learn that the Corps needs a five-step process.”

Crosscut archive image.
Members of the Kennewick Man DNA research team address the press. (L to R) Dr. Morten Rasmussen of University of Copenhagen and Stanford; Dr. David Meltzer, archaeologist from Southern Methodist University, and Dr. Eske Willerslev, head of the study and director of the Centre for GeoGenetics, University of Copenhagen.

Also attending the press conference was Dr. Jim Chatters, the archaeologist who first inspected K-Man and has advocated for continued scientific study of the remains. Before returning the bones, he said another DNA study should be done. “We need a second opinion,” he insisted. He said K-Man is part of “global humanity’s heritage.” If a second study confirms the current Nature report, he said the bones should be repatriated and that he would like to witness that event. Dr. Willerslev said that his group’s data would be available should any researchers want to use it.

The tribes worry about scientists’ attempts to hold up the return process. “I plead with the scientists to step back,” said the Yakama’s Ruth Jim.

Armand Minthorn of the Umatilla tribe, who has long been a critic of scientists who insisted in studying K-Man, thanked the Danish researchers for their report saying they had produced a “Concrete truth. It cannot be disputed.”

Of course, anything can be disputed, but now science is on the side of the tribes.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.