Elementary Level: Kennewick Man

  • Posted 3/06/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10741

The skull and bones of a man who lived more than 9,000 years ago were discovered in 1996 near Kennewick. Archaeologists realized that these remains were very rare. Some wanted to have the opportunity to study them. Native Americans from around the region wanted to rebury the man they called the Ancient One and respected as an ancestor. Disagreements about what to do with Kennewick Man continued through the years, until 2017, when the remains of the Ancient One were turned over to representatives of the five tribes who for 20 years had sought their return, allowing for his burial at an undisclosed location near the Columbia River. (This essay was written for students in third and fourth grade who are studying Washington State History and for all beginning readers who want to learn more about Washington. It is one of a set of essays called HistoryLink Elementary, all based on existing HistoryLink essays.)


On July 28, 1996, Will Thomas and Dave Deacy were on their way to watch hydroplane races on the Columbia River near Kennewick. They decided to wade along the muddy river bank to see if they could get a little closer to where the boats were roaring along the water. Thomas stepped on something round and hard in the shallow water. He joked to his friend that he thought he had stepped on a human head. When he pulled the object out of the water, he discovered that it really was a skull. It even had teeth! The young men knew they needed to report what they had found, but they wanted to watch the boat races first. So they hid their find in the bushes for safe-keeping. When they returned, they placed the brown-colored skull in a bucket and took it to the local police department.

At first, police thought the skull might be from a recent crime victim. They turned it over to Benton County coroner Floyd Johnson. It was his job to examine any human remains. Johnson thought the skull was very old so he contacted his friend James Chatters, who had experience in prehistoric studies. They went back to the riverbank to see if they could find more of the skeleton. Over the next few days, they located more than 350 bones and bone fragments -- almost a complete skeleton. And there was a stone spear point stuck into the pelvis bone. The two men realized that they had found something very important.

As it turned out, the skull and skeleton were far older than anyone had imagined. Scientists dated it at more than 9,000 years old. It was among the oldest nearly complete skeletons ever found in North America. The remains became known as Kennewick Man.

Native Americans from the Kennewick region considered this man one of their ancestors. They called him the Ancient One. They did not want any further tests done on the bones because that was very offensive. Instead they wanted the skeleton returned to the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation so that it could be reburied.

Many remembered that for a long time non-Indian people, including many scientists, had dug up thousands of Indian graves, including some of people who had just recently died, and put their human remains in museums where they were studied and exhibited. Six years before Kennewick Man was found, Congress had passed a law, called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which tried to do something about this problem. The law required museums and universities to return any Native American human remains or artifacts to the tribes who lived closest to where they had been discovered. The Umatilla Tribe said that this meant that Kennewick Man should be returned to them. The federal government agreed to do that.

However, eight anthropologists and archaeologists, including two who worked at the Smithsonian Museum, thought that there was important information to be learned if they were allowed to continue to study the skeleton. They wanted to see if they could learn where Kennewick Man had come from. A few scientists even wondered if he may have come from Europe, although many other scientists criticized such suggestions as scientifically unsupported. But the eight scientists sued the government to prevent it from releasing the skeleton for reburial. They were worried that if they did not take a stand on how Kennewick Man's case was treated, they might not be able to study any similar Native American finds in the future.

During this time, there was also concern that people might visit the riverbank where Kennewick Man had been discovered with hopes of finding a bone or an artifact that they could keep for themselves. If the banks of the river continued to wash away, more bones might be exposed. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was responsible for that site because it was on federal land. To make it stronger and protect it from looters, the riverbank was covered with tons of rock and dirt. This also meant that scientists could not do any further digging at the Columbia River grave of Kennewick Man.

By 2014, the final decision on what to do with these important remains still had not been made, and Kennewick Man was kept at the University of Washington's Burke Museum in Seattle. The Corps of Engineers was in charge of the remains and decided who could see them. The scientists who sued and some others visited the museum to study the remains, and published some studies of their findings. Representatives of some of the tribes involved in the case also visited the Ancient One to conduct ceremonies. 

Finally in 2017, the remains of the Ancient One were turned over to representatives of the five tribes who for 20 years had sought their return. On February 18, 2017, more than 200 Colville, Umatilla, Yakama, Wanapum, and Nez Perce tribal members and staff attended a burial service for the Ancient One conducted by religious leaders of the five tribes. The service was private and the burial site, on the Columbia Plateau above the Columbia River, was not disclosed.


This essay is based on the following HistoryLink essays: "Kennewick Man" (Essay 5664); "Congress passes Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act on November 16, 1990" (Essay 5603), and "Two hydroplane racing fans discover the skull of Kennewick Man on the bank of the Columbia River on July 28, 1996" (Essay 8503). It is one of a suite of essays (called HistoryLink Elementary) that focus on important people, places, and events in Washington State History, and that align with elementary school textbooks and state academic standards. All the HistoryLink Elementary essays are included in the HistoryLink People's Histories library, and the HistoryLink Elementary suite and related curricular activities can also be found on HistoryLink's Education Page (http://www.historylink.org/Index.cfm?DisplayPage=education/index.cfm). The HistoryLink Elementary project is supported in part by Heritage 4Culture's Special Projects Program. Note: This story was updated on February 7, 2022. 

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