A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Examination of the Kennewick Man skeleton is scheduled to begin next Thursday at the Burke Museum in Seattle, Washington--two years and seven months after it came to light in the mud by the side of the Columbia River (see "A Battle Over Bones," January/February 1997).
The skeleton came to national attention after it was dated to more than 8,400 years ago and described as "Caucasoid," an anthropological term quickly converted to "Caucasian" by a bevy of journalists, erroneously implying that Europeans had colonized the New World before American Indians. After the skeleton was dated, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has jurisdiction over the Columbia River, halted all research and decided to hand the bones over to a coalition of Indian tribes under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). A group of scientists cried foul and sued; a federal judge barred the corps from turning over the bones until the parties could resolve their dispute; and the corps, backtracking, concluded that it did not have the expertise to decide what to do with the bones and asked the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service to step in. Francis P. McManamon, the park service's chief archaeologist, determined that not enough was known about the skeleton from the previous, partly completed round of study to decide what to do with it. In consultation with the corps, tribes, and scientists, McManamon developed a plan of study for the skeleton, and last October it was transferred from a government facility near Richland, Washington, where it had been housed since shortly after its discovery, to the Burke Museum.
The park service plan calls for examination to determine whether the bones represent the remains of one or more than one person (something that is not clear from existing records) and whether they are indeed Native American as defined in NAGPRA. The first stage of the study will involve only nondestructive examination, including inventory, description, and measurement of bones and teeth; recovery and analysis of soil adhering to the remains; analysis of the stone point embedded in the pelvis; and assessment of health and life-style by observations of bone trauma, dental wear, and so forth. These data will then be used to try "to determine the extent to which the physical characteristics of [Kennewick Man] resemble those of existing recorded Native American skeletal populations." If the results of the first stage are inconclusive, the park service may call for radiocarbon dating, DNA analysis to assist in inferring ancestry, and stable isotope analysis to help determine diet.
The park service has assembled a team of anthropologists and archaeologists to perform the analysis: Jerome Rose of the University of Arkansas, Joseph Powell of the University of New Mexico, Julie Stein of the University of Washington, Gary Huckleberry of Washington State University, John Fagan of the contract-archaeology firm Archaeological Investigations Northwest, and McManamon.
If the Interior Department determines, based on the results of the investigation, that the remains are Native American, and therefore subject to repatriation, it will have to decide with which tribe they are most closely affiliated. NAGPRA specifies that human remains be repatriated to lineal descendants if they are known; according to the park service plan, however, if Kennewick Man proves to be 8,400 years old, "it is not possible for any relationship of lineal descent, as defined by NAGPRA, to be made." Where no lineal descendants are known, remains are repatriated to the tribe on whose land they were found, but the park service has concluded that "the land where [Kennewick Man was] discovered has not been...determined to be the exclusive aboriginal territory of any modern Indian tribe." Where no lineal descendants are known and remains were not found on any one tribe's land, repatriations proceed according to cultural affiliation, "a relationship of shared group identity which can be reasonably traced historically or prehistorically between a present day Indian tribe and an identifiable earlier group." Determining the cultural affiliation of Kennewick Man, the study plan recognizes, will require even more investigation. Whether the suing scientists ever get to study Kennewick Man, and whether they succeed in blocking or only delaying its repatriation, it looks as though science itself will not suffer.