Ancient human remains were found by two students on a river bank in Kennewick, Washington in 1996, leading to the skeleton’s nickname: Kennewick Man. The remains are roughly 9,000 years old, and it is one of the most complete skeletons ever recovered for its age. Kennewick Man is currently housed at the Burke Museum in Washington and access to the remains is controlled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Preliminary genetic analysis has revealed that he was likely a Native American, but the matter is far from settled.
Determining the ethnicity of Kennewick Man is extremely important, as ownership of the remains has been a fierce legal battle since its discovery. Regional Native American tribes view Kennewick Man as a revered ancestor. If he was, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) mandates that the remains be turned over to the tribes for burial. If he was not Native American, as some anthropologists believe due to the skeleton’s age, the remains can be kept, studied, and used for educational purposes.
Anthropologists who disagree with the claim that Kennewick Man is Native American have done so based on the morphology of the skull. The narrow brain casing and prominent forehead are more closely aligned with those living in coastal Asian locations, not Native Americans. However, a 13,000-year-old skeleton recovered in Mexico had a similar skull shape to Kennewick Man, but was found to be genetically related to Native Americans. If Kennewick Man was a Native American, he was one of the oldest in the region.
Genetic analysis of the remains, which would settle the matter absolutely, has been ongoing for several years. Extracting ancient DNA (aDNA) for analysis is delicate work, and the field is still relatively young. As samples of bone need to be destroyed in order to extract the DNA, it needs to be scientifically “worth it” to test samples.
A research update via email in 2013 from researcher Thomas Stafford Jr. to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has indicated that the first samples of aDNA recovered from two small bone fragments suggest that Kennewick Man has “normal, standard Native-American genetics,” with “no indication he has a different origin than North American Native American.”
However, Stafford went on to say that the bone fragments used for testing weren’t ideal and could have been contaminated by environmental factors. Using one of Kennewick Man’s teeth would be ideal, he explained, but it would be several more years until the technology is where it needs to be in order to justify using a tooth. While the preliminary results point to Kennewick being of Native American origin, it is possible that more detailed analysis could refute the findings. It’s not incredibly likely, but it is possible.
Not much more will be known about Kennewick Man’s origins until the researchers publish their results in a peer-reviewed journal. If he is Native American, it will then become a question of which tribe he belongs to. That could prove to be fairly difficult, as the genetic record of Native American tribes is woefully incomplete.
[Hat tip: Sandi Doughton, The Seattle Times]