Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
online news
Reburial Dispute October 10, 1996
by Andrew L. Slayman

"It's Official: Kennewick Man Goes Native," ARCHAEOLOGY Online, January 13, 2000,
"Kennewick VI: The Saga Continues," September/October 1999,
"K-Man in the Lab," May/June 1999,
"Kennewick Update 3," ARCHAEOLOGY Online, February 23, 1999,
"Kennewick Update 2," November/December 1998,
"Kennewick Update 1," May/June 1997,
"Kennewick Man Caught in Catch-22," ARCHAEOLOGY Online, June 26, 1997, and
"A Battle Over Bones," January/February 1997.

One of the oldest human skeletons ever found in North America may be repatriated to several American Indian tribes for reburial within two weeks. The well-preserved skeleton was found on July 28 in the Columbia River in Kennewick, Washington, by two residents of nearby West Richland. It has been radiocarbon-dated to 8410 60 B.P. (before present) by R. Ervin Taylor, Jr., of the University of California, Riverside, and this date is broadly corroborated by a piece of a projectile point of the Cascade phase, usually dated between ca. 9000 and 4500 B.P., embedded in the pelvis. Archaeologists are fighting the repatriation of the skeleton before it has been studied further, and a legal challenge may be launched.

Examination of the skull by anthropologist James Chatters revealed a long, narrow skull and face, a projecting nose, receding cheek bones, a high chin, and a square mandible. None of these features is typical of modern American Indians, but they are found on other Paleoindian skeletons roughly contemporaneous with the Kennewick remains. Such features have previously been described as "pre-mongoloid," "proto-mongoloid," "archaic-mongoloid," and even "proto-caucasoid."

The last term, in particular, has led to some confusion, with New York Times reporter Timothy Egan calling the skeleton "Caucasian" and saying, "It adds credence to theories that some early inhabitants of North America came from European stock." But according to anthropologist Donald K. Grayson of the University of Washington, "the use of the term caucasoid really is a red flag, suggesting that whites were here earlier and Indians were here later, and there's absolutely no reason to think that."

In a 1994 study, physical anthropologists D. Gentry Steele and Joseph F. Powell, both of Texas A&M University, compared the morphology of early North American skulls with that of other ancient and modern groups from around the world. They observed that later Holocene (ca. 8500 B.P.-present) northern Asians and American Indians fall into one group, with the shortest, widest faces; southern Pacific and European populations into a second group, with the tallest, narrowest faces; and Paleoindians into a third group somewhere in between. They concluded that their "analysis supports the distinctiveness of the Paleoindian sample from the more recent Holocene American Indians."

Whether these differences are the result of two (or more) separate migrations from Asia to North America; of the evolution over the past 10,000 years of the shorter, rounder skull shape out of the taller, narrower one; or of some other cause remains undetermined. Steele and Powell based their study on observations of nine skeletons between 8,000 and 10,000 years old and more detailed measurements of four of those, omitting a tenth because its date was uncertain. Since then several other skeletons of similar age have come to light. At least one of them, known as the Spirit Cave Man (see "Oldest North American Mummy," ARCHAEOLOGY, September/October 1996), also displays the taller, narrower skull morphology, according to Amy Dansie of the Nevada State Museum in Carson City. As one of the best-preserved New World skeletons of the period, the Kennewick specimen has the potential to contribute greatly to this discussion, but it may be reburied before scientists can study it further.

The skeleton was found in the Columbia River on land that falls within the ancestral territory of the Umatilla Indian tribes and is today under the jurisdiction of the United States Army Corps of Engineers (ACE). After Chatters determined the skeleton was indigenous, it was taken into custody by the ACE station in Walla Walla, Washington. A coalition of the Umatilla, Yakama, Colville, Nez Perce, and Wanapum tripes then filed a claim for the skeleton under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a 1990 law that provides for the return (repatriation) to tribes of Indian skeletons and artifacts (see ARCHAEOLOGY, November/December 1994). In accordance with the law, ACE announced their intent to repatriate the skeleton to the coalition in notices in the Tri-City Herald, a local newspaper, on September 17 and again on September 24. NAGPRA requires a waiting period of at least 30 days following the second notice, during which other American Indian groups may submit competing claims for review. According to Lt. Col. Donald R. Curtis, Jr., commander of the Walla Walla district of ACE, the corps has received "several" other claims for the skeleton, including a few from "individuals." The corps is releasing no further information on competing claims until the review process is complete, and in the meantime they are not allowing access to the skeleton.

ACE's review of competing claims occurs throughout the 30-day waiting period, and, if the corps upholds the first claim, the Kennewick skeleton could be turned over to the coalition and reburied as early as October 24. According to Chatters, however, the tribes forming the coalition do not agree what to do with the skeleton once they have it. "The Colville tribe wants to see that it be studied," says Chatters, "but the Yakamas, the Umatillas, and the Nez Perce...are demanding to put it right back in the ground." Adeline Fredin of the Colvilles' archaeology and history department confirms that her tribe is interested in further study of ancient skeletons found in the region by nondestructive analysis, including dating and genetic testing of small samples. Attempts by ARCHAEOLOGY to reach officials of the other coalition tribes for comment have not been successful.

A number of scientists have protested the proposed repatriation in letters to ACE. Physical anthropologists Douglas Owsley of the Smithsonian Institution and Richard Jantz of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, warned, in a letter addressed to ACE and publicly distributed by electronic mail, that "if a pattern of returning [such] remains without study develops, the loss to science will be incalculable and we will never have the data required to understand the earliest populations in America." And in a letter published in the New York Times on October 4, William D. Lipe, president of the Society for American Archaeology, urged that the "tribe that has claimed the ancient Washington skeleton...reconsider and permit additional studies to be conducted."

There is also the possibility of a legal challenge to the repatriation. According to Alan Schneider, a Portland, Oregon, attorney familiar with NAGPRA law, "there's a group of people actively planning a challenge, but nothing concrete has been settled." On what grounds such a challenge would proceed remains to be seen, but one possible avenue might be to question ACE's assignment of ownership under NAGPRA. According to the notice in the Tri-City Herald, ACE made its decision based on a "relationship of shared group identity which can be reasonably traced between the human remains" and the Umatilla-led coalition. But, as Steele points out, the morphology of many early American skulls makes it impossible to assume that they are ancestral to any one modern American Indian group. NAGPRA does not address this issue, and the courts have yet to receive a test case on which to render a decision.

More amicable arrangements have been made in other cases of early human remains found in North America. In the instance of a fragmentary skeleton found in Hourglass Cave, Colorado, in 1988 and dated to ca. 8000 B.P., a representative of the Southern Ute tribe worked on the excavations, according to archaeologist Patty Jo Watson of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. More than two years were given to studying the remains, including taking samples for radiocarbon-dating and genetic analysis, before they were repatriated. In the more recent case of a skeleton from Prince of Wales Island in Alaska, found in July and radiocarbon-dated to 9730 60 B.P., United States Forest Service archaeologists consulted with local tribes once it became apparent that the site contained human bones. Scientists have been allowed to study the skeleton, including taking small samples for radiocarbon-dating and possible genetic analysis, according to Terence Fifield, an archaeologist with the Tongass National Forest. Excavations have continued. If the site turns out to be a burial ground, archaeologists will consult further with local tribes. At some point the remains will be repatriated for reburial.

* ARCHAEOLOGY's newsbrief on the Spirit Cave Man, from the September/October 1996 issue
* The home page of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation has information on tribal history and culture and includes their position paper on the Kennewick Man, "Human Remains Should Be Reburied," by Armand Minthorn.
* Documents related to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, from the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies at the University of Arkansas

© 1996 by the Archaeological Institute of America