Is the Kennewick Man a Caucasoid?

How DNA Analysis Clarified the Kennewick Man Controversy

Profile of man with strawberry blonde hair
A caucasoid means someone from western Asia, Europe, or northern Africa. Hero Images / Getty Images

Was Kennewick Man Caucasoid? Short answer—no, DNA analysis has resoundingly identified the 10,000-year-old skeletal remains as Native American. Long answer: with the recent DNA studies, the classification system that theoretically separated human beings into Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Australoid, and Negroid has been found to be even more error-prone than before.

History of the Kennewick Man Caucasoid Controversy

Kennewick Man, or more properly, The Ancient One, is the name of a skeleton discovered on a river bank in Washington state back in 1998, long before the ready availability of comparative DNA.

The people who found the skeleton at first thought he was a European-American, based on a cursory look at his cranium. But the radiocarbon date put the man's death at between 8,340–9,200 calibrated years before the present (cal BP). By all known scientific understandings, this man could not have been European-American; on the basis of his skull shape he was designated "Caucasoid."

There are several other ancient skeletons or partial skeletons found in the Americas ranging in age from 8,000-10,000 cal BP, including Spirit Cave and Wizards Beach sites in Nevada; Hourglass Cave and Gordon's Creek in Colorado; the Buhl Burial from Idaho; and some others from Texas, California, and Minnesota, in addition to the Kennewick Man materials. All of them, in varying degrees, have traits that are not necessarily what we think of as "Native American;" some of these, like Kennewick, were at one point tentatively identified as "Caucasoid."

What is Caucasoid, Anyway?

To explain what the term "Caucasoid" means, we'll have to go back in time a little—say 150,000 years or so. Somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago, anatomically modern humans—known as Homo sapiens, or, rather, Early Modern Humans (EMH)—appeared in Africa. Every single human being alive today is descended from this single population.

At the time we are speaking, EMH was not the only species occupying the earth. There were at least two other hominin species: Neanderthals, and the Denisovans, first recognized in 2010, and perhaps Flores as well. There is genetic evidence that we interbred with these other species—but that is besides the point. 

Isolated Bands and Geographical Variations

Scholars theorize that the appearance of "racial" characteristics—nose shape, skin color, hair and eye color—all of that came after some EMH began to leave Africa and colonize the rest of the planet. As we spread out over the earth, little bands of us became geographically isolated and began to adapt, as humans do, to their surroundings. Little isolated bands, together adapting to their geographic surroundings and in isolation from the rest of the population, began to develop regional patterns of physical appearance, and it is at this point that "races," that is, different characteristics, began to be expressed.

Changes in skin color, nose shape, limb length, and overall body proportions are thought to have been a reaction to latitudinal differences in temperature, aridity, and amount of solar radiation. It is these characteristics that were used in the late 18th century to identify "races." Paleoanthropologists today express these differences as "geographical variation." Generally, the four major geographic variations are Mongoloid (generally considered northeastern Asia), Australoid (Australia and perhaps southeast Asia), Caucasoid (western Asia, Europe, and northern Africa), and Negroid or African (sub-Saharan Africa).

Bear in mind that these are broad patterns only and that both physical traits and genes vary more within these geographical groups than they do between them.

DNA and Kennewick

After Kennewick Man's discovery, the skeleton was carefully examined, and, using craniometric studies, the researchers concluded that the characteristics of the cranium matched closest to those populations who make up the Circum-Pacific group, among them Polynesians, the Jomon, modern Ainu and the Moriori of the Chatham Islands.

But DNA studies since then have conclusively shown that Kennewick man and the other early skeletal materials from the Americas are in fact Native American. Scholars were able to recover mtDNA, Y chromosome, and genomic DNA from Kennewick Man's skeleton, and his haplogroups are found almost exclusively among Native Aemricans—despite the physical similarities to Ainu, he is significantly closer to other Native Americans than any other group worldwide.

Populating the Americas

The most recent DNA studies (Rasmussen and colleagues; Raghavan and colleagues) show that the ancestors of modern Native Americans entered the Americas from Siberia via the Bering Land Bridge in a single wave beginning about 23,000 years ago. After they arrived, they spread out and diversified.

By Kennewick man's time about 10,000 years later, the Native Americans had already populated the entire North and South American continents and diverged into separate branches. Kennewick man falls into the branch whose descendants spread into Central and South America.

So Who is Kennewick Man?

Of the five groups who have claimed him as an ancestor and were willing to provide DNA samples for comparison, the Colville tribe of Native Americans in Washington State are the closest.

So why does Kennewick Man look "Caucasoid"? What researchers have found is that human cranial shape only matches DNA results 25 percent of the time and that the broad variability noted in the other patterns—skin color, nose shape, limb length, and overall body proportions—can also be applied to cranial characteristics.

Bottom line? Kennewick man was a Native American, descended from Native Americans, ancestral to Native Americans.