Kennewick Man (The Ancient One)

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 3/03/2004
  • Essay 5664

A man who lived 8,500 years ago along the Columbia River in what is now central Washington's Tri-Cities area became the center of worldwide attention and heated controversy following the 1996 discovery of his nearly complete skeleton at a riverside park in Kennewick. Five area Indian tribes sought to rebury the man they called the Ancient One and revered as an ancestor. The federal government agreed, but eight anthropologists and archaeologists sued for the right to study the skeleton, widely known as Kennewick Man. Despite early reports appearing to suggest Kennewick Man was "Caucasian" and that Europeans may have reached America before Indians did, initial studies concluded the Ancient One was not like Europeans, Indians, or any modern peoples. After court rulings allowed the scientists to study the remains, they asserted that their research, based largely on skeletal measurements, showed Kennewick Man was not related to Native Americans. However, in 2015, DNA testing confirmed that the Ancient One was in fact more closely related to Native Americans, particularly Columbia Plateau tribes, than any other modern population. In 2017 his remains were returned to the tribes and reburied.

Dramatic Announcements

The skeleton that came to be called Kennewick Man was discovered on July 28, 1996, in the Columbia River near Columbia Park in Kennewick. Students Will Thomas and Dave Deacy found a skull while wading through the shallow water on their way to view hydroplane races. Benton County coroner Floyd Johnson, responsible for investigating human remains, thought the skull appeared unusually old. He called in his friend James Chatters, a self-employed anthropologist who had assisted him in prior investigations. Searching the riverbank and shallow water that evening and over the next few days Chatters and others located more than 350 bones and bone fragments that made up a nearly-complete skeleton.

The initial discovery received only minimal attention. It was Chatters's dramatic announcements a month later that brought worldwide attention to the remains he dubbed Kennewick Man and touched off heated controversy over disposition of the bones. At an August 27, 1996, press conference Chatters reported that radiocarbon dating indicated the skeleton was more than 9,000 years old (later studies determined the remains were approximately 8,500 years old), and that there was a stone spear point embedded in the man's pelvis. While those findings were striking enough, most attention focused on his assertion that, based on measurements of the skull and other bones, the remains, which Chatters described as "Caucasoid," were very different from those of modern Native Americans and more closely resembled those of Europeans.

The fallout was immediate. Although Chatters went on to caution, at the press conference and afterward, that he was not saying Europeans reached the Americas before the ancestors of Native Americans did, his announcement led to widespread media speculation raising precisely that possibility. But area tribes recognized the man found on their ancestral lands as an ancestor and tribal leaders expressed dismay at the treatment of the Ancient One's remains. Handling and examination of the skeleton, especially destruction of a small piece of bone for radiocarbon dating, violated religious beliefs that remains of ancestors should not be viewed or disturbed.

Indians Seek the Ancient One

Armand Minthorn, a board member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, located in Oregon some 50 miles southeast of Kennewick, asked "How would you feel if we came into your cemetery and dug up your ancestors?" (Dietrich). Minthorn asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to ensure that the ancient skeleton was not subjected to additional examination, as did representatives of the Yakama Indian Nation.

The Corps of Engineers had jurisdiction over the remains because it managed the federal property where they were found. Three days after the press conference the Corps ordered Benton County officials to obtain the remains from Chatters and turn them over to the Corps. The bones were briefly held in the county evidence locker, then Chatters and Johnson packed them for transfer to the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, which the Corps designated to hold them until the dispute was resolved.

Within days, the Umatilla Tribes, supported by the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, and the Wanapum Band of Indians, all from Washington, and the Nez Perce Tribe from Idaho, requested the Ancient One be turned over to them for reburial. The tribal claim was made under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Enacted by Congress in 1990 following extensive negotiation between Indian tribes, scientists, and museums, NAGPRA requires "repatriation" to Indian tribes of some affiliated human remains and artifacts held in museum collections. It also provides that "Native American human remains" discovered on federal land belong to the Indian tribe with the closest cultural affiliation. On September 17, 1996, the Corps of Engineers published a formal "Notice of Intent to Repatriate" the remains.

Lawsuit Challenges NAGPRA

Even before his press conference, Chatters, fearing that the remains would quickly be repatriated under NAGPRA, had begun contacting anthropologists and archaeologists around the country in an effort to head off that result. Chatters found support from some other scientists for his view that NAGPRA was a flawed law that gave too much control to Indian tribes and thwarted research. In particular, some prominent figures studying the first peoples to inhabit the Americas, referred to as Paleo-Indians or Paleo-Americans, saw the law as threatening their entire field. Very few "Paleo-American" remains had so far been discovered, and if NAGPRA allowed tribes to prevent study of newly discovered ancient remains, they might not be able to add to this scant data. The Kennewick Man case presented an opportunity to challenge NAGPRA.

On October 16, 1996, eight scientists filed suit in federal district court in Portland, Oregon, to block repatriation and gain the right to study the skeleton. The eight plaintiffs in Bonnichsen v. United States included five physical anthropologists (C. Loring Brace, Richard Jantz, Douglas Owsley, George Gill, and D. Gentry Steele) and three archaeologists (Robson Bonnichsen, Dennis J. Stanford, and C. Vance Haynes Jr.). Owsley and Stanford were at the Smithsonian Institution and the others held university positions.

To help make their case, the plaintiff scientists, in their court pleadings and in the media, asserted the great scientific importance of the Kennewick discovery. In part, this was based on the rarity of remains that old in North America and the relative completeness of the Kennewick skeleton. However, plaintiffs also emphasized the claim that Kennewick Man differed markedly from modern Native Americans and appeared more like Europeans. Press accounts highlighted statements by various plaintiffs using the terms Caucasian and Caucasoid to describe Kennewick Man and citing theories that the first inhabitants of the Americas may have come from Europe.

Differing Perspectives

Many area Indians found the plaintiffs' claims and theories offensive and insulting. The suggestion that they were not related to the Ancient One and the implication that Indian peoples were relative newcomers in their homeland were direct affronts to fundamental beliefs. Minthorn, the Umatilla leader, explained:

"Our oral history goes back 10,000 years. We know how time began and how Indian people were created. They can say whatever they want, the scientists. They are being disrespectful" (Thomas, xxii).

To the scientist plaintiffs, it was Indian leaders who were trying to impose their beliefs on everyone else. Plaintiff Owsley said:

"People are free to believe what they want to believe, but I think we're resisting the right for them to force that on others ... This is information that the American public has the right to know" (Thomas, xxvi).

But tribal leaders pointed out that pursuit of scientific knowledge had often come at a high price for Native Americans. Colville Confederated Tribes Attorney General Marla Big Boy wrote:

"The ever-changing scientific theories disturb the Colville Tribe because science is not always benign ... The type of scientific and professional arrogance of the Bonnichsen et al. plaintiffs is also present throughout history ... What is happening today is similar to the scientific purposes of yesterday" (Thomas, xxvi).

Her statement reflected the contentious and painful history between Indians and scientists that dates to the beginnings of archaeology and anthropology in the nineteenth century. As later generations of scientists such as Stephen Jay Gould demonstrated, early anthropological classifications of people were based on overtly racist principles. White scientists of European descent used measurements of body parts, especially skulls, not only to classify humans into different races but to rank the purported "superiority" and "inferiority" of those races.

These racial-classification studies required many samples to analyze, so nineteenth and early twentieth century anthropologists and archaeologists avidly sought as many skulls and skeletons as they could, depositing them in collections in major museums. While bones and body parts of all groups, including some leading white scientists who posthumously donated their own, were represented, huge numbers of Native American human remains -- more than 200,000 -- ended up in museum collections. Many human remains and artifacts were excavated from Indian burial sites without permission or over objections of living tribal members. The reaction against these practices and their results became one of the driving forces behind passage of NAGPRA.

Scientific Debate

Although the media and the subsequent court decisions tended to portray the Kennewick Man lawsuit as a dispute between scientists and Indians or between science and religion, the reality was more complex. The scientific community itself was sharply divided by the case, which provoked spirited debate in anthropological publications. Not all anthropologists and archaeologists approved of the lawsuit and the plaintiffs' criticism of NAGPRA. For some, NAGPRA was not anti-science, but important human-rights legislation. Some anthropologists and archaeologists questioned claims for the great importance of the Kennewick find while others argued that learning to work co-operatively with Indian communities would be a more productive means of getting to study future finds.

Lawrence G. Straus, an expert in early European culture who rebutted suggestions that early inhabitants of the Americas came from that culture, said:

"Instead of trying to forge a mutual interest with Native Americans in discovering who these ancestors of us all were, we throw it in their faces that they are not the original Americans after all, when that is the one thing they have in their culture to hang on to in the face of the overwhelming dominance of ours" (Downey, 60).

Many anthropologists expressed concern that by describing Kennewick Man in racial terms, the plaintiffs risked resurrecting the outmoded concepts of race that had tainted early anthropological and archaeological studies. Later generations of scientists had discredited not only the idea of racial superiority but also the whole idea of races as fixed and immutable biological categories. Although racial terms such as Caucasoid are still frequently used by forensic anthropologists (like Chatters) for distinguishing among modern population groups, Chatters soon acknowledged that "Caucasoid" had not been a good choice of words for the ancient Kennewick remains.

In addition to angering Indians and causing concern among scientists, the pronouncements about Kennewick Man's possible European connection made for strange bedfellows in the lawsuit. The scientist plaintiffs were soon joined by the Asatru Folk Assembly, a U.S.-based religious group that says it follows ancient European religious beliefs and which has been linked to white-supremacist groups. Claiming Kennewick Man as an ancestor, Asatru intervened in the lawsuit to demand further tests and custody of the remains if those tests confirmed a "European origin," but ultimately abandoned its action.

Additional Controversies

The lawsuit was assigned to Magistrate Judge John Jelderks, who in 1997 denied motions to dismiss the case. He faulted the way the Corps had decided to repatriate the remains, and ordered the agency to reopen the matter and to address a series of questions, beginning with whether NAGPRA even applied to Kennewick Man. Soon afterward, a series of controversies erupted over the over the handling of the bones and the site where the remains were discovered.  

First came news that although the Corps denied the plaintiffs access to the remains for study, it had allowed Indian groups to hold ceremonies in the presence of the bones while they were stored at the Richland laboratory. Plaintiffs and others expressed outrage that they had placed materials in the containers holding the bones as part of the ceremonies, fearing that resulting contamination could hamper future studies. Then in March 1998 an inventory revealed that some bone pieces that Chatters had examined in 1996 were not among the remains. Chatters denounced the Corps for failing to properly preserve the bones, while the government began an investigation that reportedly focused on Chatters and Johnson. As it turned out, Johnson announced in June 2001 that he had found the missing femur pieces in the county evidence locker, where they had apparently remained since 1996.

The dispute over handling the remains overlapped with a separate controversy over the Corps' handling of the Columbia River site where they had been discovered, evidently shortly after having eroded out of the riverbank. The tribes expressed concern that additional erosion could result in exposure of more remains or artifacts, leading to looting by souvenir hunters. In late 1997, over the tribes' objection, the Corps allowed a limited geologic study of the discovery area, but then announced that it would "armor" the bank to provide permanent protection against erosion or disturbances. The plaintiffs, Chatters, and others protested in the media and to elected officials that doing so would bury the site and prevent further research. Congress passed legislation that would have barred the Corps from altering the site. However, the plaintiffs did not seek a court order prohibiting the action. In April 1998, before Congress gave final approval to the legislation, the Corps, asserting it had to move quickly due to salmon-related restrictions, completed the stabilization project, placing tons of rock and dirt onto the muddy bank and topping that with dense plantings.

Initial Studies

As it completed the riverbank armoring, the Corps was transferring responsibility for the Kennewick Man case to the Department of the Interior, better equipped to evaluate the remains and respond to the judge's questions. Francis McManamon, chief archaeologist of the National Park Service, was put in charge of developing the information needed to decide on disposition of the Ancient One. Ironically, the plan McManamon developed to do so involved many of the studies that the scientist plaintiffs advocated and the tribes opposed. However, it was not plaintiffs but a panel of independent scientists engaged by the government who conducted those studies in the spring of 1999 at the University of Washington's Burke Museum in Seattle.

The remains had been transferred to the Burke when Jelderks, responding to plaintiffs' concerns over the Corps of Engineers' handling of the bones, ordered them moved to a secure "neutral repository." Their arrival in Seattle on October 29, 1998, was marked by a public ceremony by the Asatru Folk Assembly and private observances by tribal representatives.

Based on measurements of the skull, teeth, and bones, the independent scientists put to rest claims that the Ancient One was any more "European" than he was "Indian." They concluded that the remains had some features commonly found in Native Americans, some found in Europeans, and some found in Asians, with the strongest resemblances to populations in Polynesia.

This did not end debate over whether the Ancient One belonged to a population ancestral to Native Americans. The scientific panel stressed that lack of physical resemblance did not rule out a connection, given the amount of time involved. Some leading anthropologists agreed, pointing out that "racial" characteristics are not unchanging over time, and that changes in environment and lifestyle can lead in just a few generations to dramatic changes in the type of skull and bone features on which classifications are based. Others continued to argue that the differences between Kennewick Man (and other ancient remains) and modern Indian populations indicated several distinct waves of migration to the Americas.

While scientists sharply debated the significance of the lack of physical similarities between the Ancient One and modern Indians, the Interior Department interpreted "Native American human remains," to which NAGPRA applies, to include any remains predating the documented arrival of Europeans in 1492. Since the Kennewick remains clearly did, this left only the question of whether the tribes claiming the Ancient One were the most closely affiliated and thus entitled to repatriation.

The Department authorized DNA tests to determine whether genetic connections between the Ancient One and the tribal claimants or others could be established, but no suitable DNA was obtained. However, after studying other evidence, in particular analyzing oral traditions, Department experts determined that the Ancient One was culturally affiliated with the tribal claimants. On September 25, 2000, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt granted their request for repatriation.

The Courts Rule

The plaintiffs returned to Magistrate Judge Jelderks, who issued his third decision in the case on August 30, 2002. Rejecting the Interior Department's interpretation of NAGPRA, Jelderks ordered that the plaintiffs be allowed to study the remains. He concluded that because NAGPRA defines "Native American" in the present tense -- "of, or relating to, a tribe, people, or culture that is indigenous to the United States" (Bonnichsen, 217 F.Supp.2d at 1136) -- remains or artifacts are "Native American" only if a relation is shown between them and a present-day tribe or culture. Jelderks decided that no such relation had been proven for Kennewick Man -- the scientific studies did not show a physical relation and he declared the evidence of oral tradition insufficient.

The government and tribes appealed, but in 2004 a panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that NAGPRA applies only to remains with a significant genetic or cultural connection to existing tribes or cultures. The panel also agreed that there was no evidence of such a relation between Kennewick Man and the tribes claiming the remains.

The plaintiffs praised the decision. Bonnichsen said, "This is a win for science, for openness and against an attempt at censorship" (Paulson). The tribes denounced the ruling for undermining Congress's intent, in passing NAGPRA, to give Indians the right to protect the graves of their ancestors. Rob Roy Smith, the lawyer who argued for the tribes, said:

"What the tribes have argued all along is that NAGPRA is human rights legislation that created a presumption in favor of returning remains to the tribes. Now they've reversed that presumption" (Hill).

However, after the full Ninth Circuit rejected the tribes' request to rehear the case, the tribes and the government announced in July 2004 that they would not appeal to the Supreme Court and risk an adverse legal decision there. That cleared the way for the plaintiffs to begin studying Kennewick Man.

Studies and Ceremonies

The plaintiff scientists gained their first access to Kennewick Man in December 2004, when they were admitted to the Burke Museum to make a preliminary assessment of the remains and refine the plan for their studies, which had to be approved by the federal government. Following approval, the plaintiffs and scientific colleagues made two more sets of visits to carry out studies, in July 2005 and February 2006.

Throughout the nearly two decades that the remains were housed at the Burke, tribal members also made regular visits, holding ceremonies and offering songs and prayers for the Ancient One. The remains were kept in a secure location at the museum and never displayed publicly.

In reports published in 2014 in a book edited by Owsley and Jantz, the scientists asserted that their research confirmed that Kennewick Man was not Native American and was more closely related to Polynesian and other Pacific populations than to American Indians. Even before the book was published, when Owsley was invited to meet privately with tribal leaders in 2012 to share the results of his research, he insisted that they had no connection to the remains they revered as the Ancient One:

"There is not any clear genetic relationship to Native American peoples ... I do not look at him as Native American ... I can't see any kind of continuity. He is a representative of a very different people" (Mapes, "Treasured Skeleton ...").

A Native American

However, within a year of his book's publication, Owsley's assertions were refuted, and the tribes' claims of a close relationship with the Ancient One confirmed, by a different group of scientists. A team led by Morten Rasmussen and Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark announced in June 2015 that it had succeeded in obtaining and analyzing DNA from Kennewick Man and found that he "is closer to modern Native Americans than to any other population worldwide" (Rasmussen), with particularly close affinities to Columbia Plateau tribes.

Owsley and his colleagues had not conducted DNA analysis, relying like earlier studies on "anatomical and morphometric analyses" of the remains (Rasmussen). But while the first attempt more than a decade earlier "to extract DNA from Kennewick Man failed, the technology [had] advanced dramatically since then" (Doughton, "Kennewick Man Is Ours ..."). The University of Copenhagen researchers, who had successfully sequenced DNA from many other ancient remains, managed to extract enough DNA from 200 milligrams of finger bone to sequence the Ancient One's genome.

Comparing that genome to those of modern peoples around the world, including the Pacific populations that skeletal studies suggested he most closely resembled, the geneticists determined conclusively that the Ancient One was more closely related to Native Americans than to any other living peoples, with no close genetic connection to the Pacific groups. And having convinced some members of the Colville Confederated Tribes to provide samples of their DNA -- "a tough decision," according to tribal council chair Jim Boyd, "because of the way science has treated our people in the past" -- the scientists also found that, in Willerslev's words, the Colville "are more closely related to Kennewick Man than are other Native-American groups" (Doughton, "Kennewick Man Is Ours ..."). While the findings did not necessarily mean that the Ancient One was a direct ancestor of living Colville Tribe members, they did establish at a minimum that "the Colville individuals are direct descendants of the population to which Kennewick Man belonged ... [and/or] descend from a population that ... was slightly diverged from the population [to] which Kennewick Man belonged" (Rasmussen).

With genetic evidence establishing that the Ancient One was Native American, the remains were subject to NAGPRA and the tribes were able to resume their quest for repatriation and reburial. In April 2016, after geneticists at the University of Chicago independently confirmed the findings of the University of Copenhagen team, the Corps of Engineers formally recognized Kennewick Man as Native American. The NAGPRA process was still ongoing in December 2016 when Congress stepped in, approving legislation that required the remains be repatriated within 90 days.

On February 17, 2017, at the Burke Museum, the remains of the Ancient One were turned over to representatives of the five tribes who for twenty years had sought their return. The following day, 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.


Morten Rasmussen, Martin Sikora, Anders Albrechtsen, et al., "The Ancestry and Affiliations of Kennewick Man," Nature, July 23, 2015 (; David Hurst Thomas, Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity (New York: Basic Books, 2000); James C. Chatters, Ancient Encounters: Kennewick Man and the First Americans (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001); Roger Downey, Riddle of the Bones: Politics, Science, Race, and the Story of Kennewick Man (New York: Copernicus, 2000); Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1981), 19-112; Jonathan Marks, What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee: Apes, People, and Their Genes (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 225-40, 251-53; Kennewick Man: The Scientific Investigation of an Ancient American Skeleton ed. by Douglas W. Owsley and Richard L. Jantz (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2014); Bill Dietrich, "Ancient Bones, Ancient Disputes -- Is Kennewick Skeleton 'Asian' or 'European'?" The Seattle Times, August 29, 1996, p. A-1; Lynda V. Mapes, "Treasured Skeleton Not Local, Scientist Tells Tribes;" Ibid., October 10, 2012, p. A-1; Sandi Doughton, "Kennewick Man Is Ours, Tribes Say After DNA Results," Ibid., June 19, 2015, p. A-1; Mapes, "Kennewick Man Officially Declared Native American," Ibid., April 28, 2016, p. B-1; Doughton, "Kennewick Man Readied for Transfer to Tribes," Ibid., February 18, 2017, p. B-1; Sara Jean Green, "Tribes Bury Ancient Ancestor's Remains," Ibid., February 20, 2017, p. B-2; Jason Hagey, "Corps Starts to Cover Kennewick Man Site," Tri-City Herald, April 7 1998 (; Mike Lee, "Missing Ancient Bones Discovered," Ibid., June 22, 2001; Chris Mulick, "Court Rejects Tribes' Appeal in Kennewick Man Case," Ibid., April 21, 2004; Anna King, "Kennewick Man Appeal Unlikely," Ibid., July 17, 2004; "Justice Won't Appeal Kennewick Man Case," Ibid., July 22, 2004; Anna King, "Kennewick Man Fight Persists," Ibid., August 5, 2004; "Kennewick Man Lawsuits Will Bar Tribes, Judge Says," Ibid., August 19, 2004; Annette Cary, "Tribes Return Ancient Kennewick Man to the Ground," Ibid., February 19, 2017; Richard L. Hill, "Kennewick Man Will Go to Scientists," The Oregonian, February 5, 2004, (; Tom Paulson, "Scientists Win Kennewick Man Ruling," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 5, 2004, p. B-1; Bonnichsen v. United States, 217 F.Supp.2d 1116 (D. Oregon, 2002); Bonnichsen v. United States , 367 F.3d 864 (9th Cir. 2004); Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, 25 U.S.C. sec. 3001 et seq.; Chuck Sams, "The Ancient One Finally Laid to Rest," February 19, 2017, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation website accessed July 21, 2020 (; "Statement on the Repatriation of the Ancient One," February 20, 2017, Burke Museum website accessed October 23, 2020 (
Note: This article was updated and expanded on November 21, 2020.

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