Scientist Says Kennewick Man From Coast Not Columbia Valley, Shares Findings With Tribes

Scientists call him the Kennewick Man, tribal members call him the Ancient One, showing just how differently the two worlds view the more than 9,200-year-old skeleton found on a bank of the Columbia River in Kennewick, Washington in 1996.

The two sides came together Tuesday, October 9, when Columbia Plateau tribal leaders met privately with Doug Owsley, a physical anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.

The conflict began 16 years ago when Owsley led the scientific battle to keep the Ancient One’s remains above ground and scientists’ rights to study them when he filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Portland, Oregon protesting repatriation and reburial under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. A group of nations—the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Yakama Indian Nation, the Nez Perce Tribe, and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation—teamed up to fight the lawsuit filed by Owsley and seven other anthropologists.

In 2002, the court sided with the scientists and in 2004 the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling, namely that the remains were not protected under NAGPRA because they were too old to establish a connection to modern Native Americans.

On Tuesday, Owsley told tribal leaders that the man they call the Ancient One was not from the Columbia Valley and was not Native American. His proof was in the form of isotopes found in the bones from marine mammals like seals.

“They are not what you would expect for someone from the Columbia Valley,” Owsley told the Seattle Times. “You would have to eat salmon 24 hours a day and you would not reach these values… This is a man from the coast, not a man from here.”

Rex Buck, leader of the Wanapum people, said lamprey eel could provide the same kind of marine mammal nutrients.

When pressed further about whether or not the Kennewick Man was Native American, Owsley said that he is not.

“There is not any clear genetic relationship to Native American peoples,” Owsley told the Seattle Times. “I do not look at him as Native American … I can’t see any kind of continuity. He is a representative of a very different people.”

He said the skull is similar to an Asian Coastal people with Polynesian characteristics.

According to the Seattle Times, the tribal members listened to Owsley’s findings for hours, but their conviction that the Ancient One’s remains should be reburied did not waver, though Owsley says there is much more to learn from the bones.

Looking at the slides of the bones was disturbing for the tribal members.

“Really, to me, it’s sad. This is a human being and his journey has been interrupted by leaving the ground,” Vivian Harrison, NAGPRA coordinator for the Yakama told the Seattle Times.

The Ancient One is currently at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle, and according to the Seattle Times, tribal members make regular visits to pay their respects and sing.

At the end of the meeting on Tuesday, Armand Minthorn of the Umatilla Board of Trustees presented Owsley with a Pendleton blanket—a gesture of respect—on behalf of the Plateau tribes. The Seattle Times reported that Minthorn extended his hand and asked Owsley for help in returning the Ancient One.

“We have listened to this man, and he has listened to us. And it was good,” Buck said in his closing prayer.


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Scientist Says Kennewick Man From Coast Not Columbia Valley, Shares Findings With Tribes