When the 9,000-year-old remains of a man were discovered in Washington state in 1996, it sparked a debate that would last decades. The most complete skeleton ever discovered in North America, Kennewick Man came from a critical period in the continent's history, at a time when many believe humans first colonized the land mass. This makes the ancient remains of incredible significance to scientists. But they were not the only group to give it such gravity.
For the local tribes of the Pacific Northwest region, the skeleton is viewed as an ancestor and they refer to him as the Ancient One. For them, the removal of his bones from the ground and the use of his remains for scientific study was viewed as sacrilegious. This sparked a fierce debate about the scientific and spiritual importance of the remains, and what should be done with them. That dispute is finally at an end, and Kennewick Man will return to the ground from which he was removed.
The colonization of the Americas is of intense interest to anthropologists. Did people first cross over from Russia and the Far East in between periods of glaciation that would have blocked off the overground route through modern-day Alaska and Canada? Or did some cross the Pacific from Polynesia by boat? In general, researchers tend to favor the first theory, but questions still abound, especially since the land bridge that connected Eurasia and North America only existed until about 12,000 years ago.
This is where the significance of Kennewick Man comes in. Named after the town near where he was found, Kennewick Man dates to the period in which humans were first exploring the continent, and could potentially answer some very important questions regarding the origin of the first Indigenous Americans. Did they arrive in multiple waves, as some studies suggest, or was it just one event? These are all questions that scientists claim the remains could help answer.
Yet the bones have taken on spiritual importance to the Native Americans who still inhabit the region, and who have been fighting for the last two decades to get them returned. The pendulum has swung multiple times between siding with the researchers and the tribes. The debate rested on whether or not the remains were direct ancestors of the local tribes of the region. Researchers argued that they were more closely aligned with Japanese and Asian origin, and in 2004 the courts sided with the scientists.
But last year, a landmark paper published in Nature came back with different results. After undergoing a DNA test, the study concluded that the initial morphological analyses were wrong and that the Kennewick Man was most closely related to the modern Native Americans. A more recent study has confirmed this, leading to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who legally own the remains as they were found on their land, to announce that they will repatriate the bones so that they can be properly buried according to Native American tradition.