What is the Kennewick Man Controversy About?

Kennewick Man

Washington State
Alexrk2 / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons

The Kennewick Man news story is one of the most important archaeology stories of modern times. The discovery of Kennewick Man, the vast amount of public confusion over what he represents, the Federal government's attempt to settle the case out of court, the suit pressed by scientists, the objections raised by the Native American community, the rulings of the court and, eventually, the analysis of the remains; all of these issues have affected how scientists, Native Americans, and the Federal governmental bodies conduct work and how that work is scrutinized by the public.

This series was begun in 1998, after the news program Sixty Minutes broke the story in a 12-minute segment. Normally, twelve minutes is generous for an archaeology story, but this is not a 'normal' archaeology story.

The Discovery of Kennewick Man

In 1996, there was a boat race on the Columbia River, near Kennewick, in Washington State, in the extreme northwestern United States. Two fans pulled ashore to get a good viewpoint of the race, and, in the shallow water at the edge of the bank, they found a human skull. They took the skull to the county coroner, who passed it to archaeologist James Chatters. Chatters and others went to the Columbia and retrieved a nearly complete human skeleton, with a long, narrow face suggestive of a person of European descent. But the skeleton was confusing to Chatters; he noticed that the teeth had no cavities and for a 40-50-year-old man (the most recent studies suggest he was in his thirties), the teeth were extremely ground down.

Cavities are the result of a corn-based (or sugar-enhanced) diet; grinding damage usually results from grit in the diet. Most modern people don't have grit in their food but do consume sugar in some form and so do have cavities. And Chatters spotted a projectile point embedded in his right pelvis, a Cascade point, normally dated between 5,000 and 9,000 years before the present.

It was clear that the point had been there while the individual was alive; the lesion in the bone had partially healed. Chatters sent off a bit of the bone to be ​radiocarbon dated. Imagine his astonishment when he received the radiocarbon date as over 9,000 years ago.

That stretch of the Columbia River is maintained by the United States Army Corps of Engineers; that same stretch of the river is considered by the Umatilla tribe (and five others) as part of their traditional homeland. According to the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act, signed into law by President George H. W. Bush in 1990, if human remains are found on federal lands and their cultural affiliation can be established, the bones must be returned to the affiliated tribe. The Umatillas made a formal claim to the bones; the Army Corps agreed with their claim and began the process of repatriation.

Unresolved Questions

But the Kennewick man problem isn't that simple; he represents a part of a problem which archaeologists have yet to solve. For the past thirty years or so, we've believed that the peopling of the American continent took place around 12,000 years ago, in three separate waves, from three separate parts of the world.

But recent evidence has begun to indicate a vastly more complicated settlement pattern, a steady influx of small groups from different parts of the world, and probably somewhat earlier than we had assumed. Some of these groups lived, some may have died out. We just don't know and Kennewick Man was considered too important a piece of the puzzle for archaeologists to let him go unanalyzed without a fight. Eight scientists sued for the right to study the Kennewick materials prior to their reburial. In September 1998, a judgment was reached, and the bones were sent to a Seattle museum on Friday, October 30th, to be studied. That wasn't the end of it of course. It took a protracted legal debate until researchers were allowed access to the Kennewick Man materials in 2005, and results finally began to reach the public in 2006.

The political battles over the Kennewick man were framed in a large part by people who want to know to what "race" he belongs. Yet, the evidence reflected in the Kennewick materials is further proof that race is not what we think it is. The Kennewick man and most of the Paleo-Indian and archaic human skeletal materials that we've found to date are not "Indian," nor are they "European." They don't fit into ANY category that we define as a "race." Those terms are meaningless in prehistory as long ago as 9,000 years--and in fact, if you want to know the truth, there are NO clearcut scientific definitions of "race."