Kennewick Man
Skull of Kennewick Man. Resin cast by James Chatters
Common nameKennewick Man
SpeciesHomo sapiens
Age8.9k – 9k years BP
Place discoveredColumbia Park in Kennewick, Washington
Date discoveredJuly 28, 1996
Discovered byWill Thomas and David Deacy

Kennewick Man or Ancient One[nb 1] was a Paleo-Indian whose skeletal remains were found washed out on a bank of the Columbia River in Kennewick, Washington, on July 28, 1996. Radiocarbon tests show the man lived about 8,900 to 9,000 years before present, making his skeleton one of the most complete ever found this old in the Americas, and thus of high scientific interest for understanding the peopling of the Americas.[1][2][nb 2]

The discovery precipitated a nearly twenty-year-long dispute. Native American tribes asserted legal rights to rebury the man under the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a law which protects Indian remains from disrespectful treatment, such as storage in labs, museums, and private collections.[4] The United States Army Corps of Engineers, that holds jurisdiction over the land where the remains were found, retained legal custody. The science community wished to conduct research on the skeleton, and asserted he was only distantly related to today's Native Americans and more closely resembled Polynesian or Southeast Asian peoples, a finding that would exempt the case from NAGPRA.

Technology for analyzing ancient DNA had been improving since 1996, and in June 2015 scientists at the University of Copenhagen announced that Kennewick Man is a genetic ancestor of Native Americans, including the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, the region where the bones were found.[5] In September 2016, the US House and Senate passed legislation to return the remains to a coalition of Columbia Basin tribes. The Ancient One was buried according to Indian traditions on February 18, 2017, with 200 members of five Columbia Basin tribes in attendance, at an undisclosed location in the area.[6] Within the scientific community since the 1990s, arguments for a non-Indian ancient history of the Americas, including by ancient peoples from Europe, have been losing ground in the face of ancient DNA analysis.[7] Kennewick Man symbolically marks an "end of a [supposed] non-Indian ancient North America".[7]


Kennewick Man was discovered by accident by two college students Will Thomas and David Deacy, on July 28, 1996. They were at the Columbia River to watch a hydroplane race near Kennewick. Thomas was wading in about 18 inches of water, about 10 feet from shore, when his foot struck something hard and round. He pulled up a human skull. They stashed it in the bushes, waited for the race to finish, then found a plastic bucket and took the skull to a Kennewick police officer. The police returned with the students to the location.[8] After further searching more bones were found underwater, and along the shore. The county coroner determined the skull was not modern, and it was given to archaeologist James Chatters, who over the course of ten visits to the site, assembled 350 bones and bone fragments creating a nearly complete articulated skeleton.[9]

Scientific analysis


The cranium was fully intact including all of its teeth from the time of death.[10] All major bones were found except the sternum and a few in the hands and feet.[11] After further study, Chatters concluded it was "a male of late middle age (40–55 years), and tall (170 to 176 cm, 5′7″ to 5′9″), and was fairly muscular with a slender build".[10] The Owsley team in 2005 reported he may have been as young as 38 at the time of death.[3]

A small bone fragment submitted to the University of California, Riverside for radiocarbon dating estimated he lived between 9,300 and 9,600 years ago (8,400 uncalibrated "radiocarbon years"), and not the 19th century, as had originally been thought.[9] Subsequent radiocarbon dating indicated a somewhat younger age of 8,900 to 9,000 cal years BP.[2][1]


Measurements of carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen isotope ratios in the bone collagen indicate that the man lived almost exclusively on a diet of marine mammals for the last 20 or so years of his life, and that the water he drank was glacial melt.[12] The closest marine coastal environment where this water could have been found during his lifetime was in Alaska. That, combined with the location of the find, led to the conclusion that the individual led a highly mobile, water-borne lifestyle centered on the northern coast.[1][13]


Chatters found a 79 mm (3.1 in) stone projectile lodged in his ilium (part of the pelvic bone). There was new bone growing around it indicating a painful but old wound.[11] Chatters made a CT scan which determined the projectile was made from a siliceous gray stone with igneous (volcanic) origins.[11] The projectile, leaf-shaped, long, and broad, with serrated edges, fit the description of a Cascade point, characteristic of the Cascade phase from 12,000 to 7,500 years BP.[11]

Forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley, who later led the scientific team that examined Kennewick Man's skeleton in 2005, discovered that the bones in Kennewick Man's arms were bent. Owsley theorized that this was the result of powerful muscles built up over the course of a lifetime of hunting and spearfishing.[14] Kennewick Man was found to be right-handed, as the bones of the right arm are noticeably larger than the left.

Owsley also found that Kennewick Man had arthritis in his right elbow, both of his knees, and several vertebrae but not severe enough to be crippling. Kennewick Man had suffered some trauma in his lifetime, which was evident by a fractured rib that had healed, a depression fracture on his forehead, and a similar indentation on the left side of the head, and a spear jab that healed.[15]

Genetic and cultural origins

Chatters, who initially investigated the skeleton, early on concluded that the "presence of Caucasoid traits [and a] lack of definitive Native-American characteristics", as well as the apparent context of the skeleton as part of an early Paleo-American group led him to state that the body was "Caucasian" (an anthropological term not synonymous with "white" or "European").[16][17]

Scientists attempted DNA analysis within a few years of discovery, but reported "available technology and protocols do not allow the analysis of ancient DNA from these remains" ie. multiple experts were unable to extract enough DNA for analysis.[18]

Chatters et al. (2000) conducted a graphic comparison, including size, of Kennewick Man to eighteen modern populations. They found Kennewick Man to be most closely related to the Ainu, a recognized indigenous people of Northern Japan. However, when size was excluded as a factor, no association to any population was established.[9] In 2001, Chatters wrote that the "craniofacial characteristics of Paleo-Americans, Asians, and early Europeans, loosely resemble the Ainu, Polynesian, and Australian peoples", but that no group was the major contributor to the Paleo-American gene pool.[19] Anthropologist C. Loring Brace maintained in a 2006 interview that, by his analysis, Kennewick Man was "likely related" to the Ainu of Japan.[20]

Anthropologist Joseph Powell of the University of New Mexico was also allowed to examine the remains. Powell used craniometric data obtained by anthropologist William White Howells of Harvard University and anthropologist Tsunehiko Hanihara of Saga University; this had the advantage of including data drawn from Asian and North American populations.[21] Powell said that Kennewick Man was not European but most resembled the Ainu[9] and Polynesians.[21] Powell said that the Ainu descend from the Jōmon people, an East Asian population with "closest biological affinity with south-east Asians rather than western Eurasian peoples".[22] Powell said that dental analysis showed the skull to have a 94-percent consistency with being of a Sundadont group like the Ainu and Polynesians and only a 48-percent consistency with being of a Sinodont group like that of North Asia.[23] Powell said analysis of the skull showed it to be "unlike American Indians and Europeans".[23] Powell concluded that the remains were "clearly not a Caucasoid unless Ainu and Polynesians are considered Caucasoid".[22]

Advances in genetic research made it possible to analyze ancient DNA (aDNA) more accurately than earlier attempts when the skeleton was found. In June 2015, new results concluded that the remains are more closely related to modern Native Americans than to any other living population. Kennewick Man's genetic profile was particularly close to that of members of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. Of the five tribes that originally claimed Kennewick Man as an ancestor, their members were the only ones to donate DNA samples for evaluation. The lack of genomes from North American aboriginal populations have made it impossible to ascertain Kennewick Man's nearest living relatives among regional Native American tribes. His Y-DNA haplogroup is Q-M3 and his mitochondrial DNA is X2a, both uniparental genetic markers found almost exclusively in Native Americans.[24]


Kennewick Man had been buried deliberately.[3] By examining the calcium carbonate left behind as underground water collected on the underside of the bones and then evaporated, scientists were able to conclude that Kennewick Man was lying on his back with his feet rolled slightly outward and his arms at his side, with the palms facing down, a position that could not have been accidental.[25][26]

Scientific initiatives and significance

Scientific initiatives

There have been three major scientific initiatives to study and report on Kennewick Man.

Scientific significance

According to Time magazine, "Scientists have found only about 50 skeletons of such antiquity, most of them fragmentary. Any new find can thus add crucial insight into the ongoing mystery of who first colonized the New World."[3]

Since the mid-1990s within the science community, "Palaeoamericans" have vied with "Palaeoindians" over the identity of the first people of the Americas. "Palaeoamericans" posit the earliest inhabitants are not related to modern day Indians, possibly they were Asians from an extinct lineage, or even from Europe. "Palaeoindians" assert modern Indians are the ancestors of the earliest settlers of North America. Kennewick Man, and DNA from other ancient skeletons, has played a significant role in eroding Palaeoamerican theories. Kennewick Man's DNA results mark an "end of a [supposed] non-Indian ancient North America".[7]

The discovery of Kennewick Man, along with other ancient skeletons, has furthered scientific debate over the origin and history of early Native American people.[9] One hypothesis holds that a single source of migration occurred, consisting of hunters and gatherers following large herds of game who wandered across the Bering land bridge. An alternative hypothesis is that more than one source population was involved in migration immediately following the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), which occurred ~22k to ~18k years BP, and that the land migration through Beringia was either preceded by or roughly synchronous with a waterborne migration from coastal Asia.[29]

The similarity of some ancient skeletal remains in the Americas, such as Kennewick Man, to coastal Asian phenotypes is suggestive of more than one migration source.[how?][1][9][22][30] Classification of DNA from ancient skeletons such as Kennewick Man and others of similar phenotype may or may not reveal genetic affiliation between them, with either Beringian[31][32] or coastal Asian[33][34] source populations.

Regardless of the debate over whether there were more than one source of migration following the LGM, Kennewick Man has yielded insight into the marine lifestyle and mobility of early coastal migrants.[13]

Owsley study criticisms

In 2012, Burke Museum archeologists voiced concern and criticism of the Owsley team's preliminary findings (not published fully until 2014). First, it was noted that no one outside of Owsley's team had an opportunity to examine the Smithsonian's data to see how the team reached its conclusions.[35] Second, the absence of peer-reviewed articles published prior to Owsley unveiling the bones' "secrets" was criticized.[35] Third, Owsley's non-Native argument hinged on the assumption that Kennewick Man's skull was a reliable means of assessing ancestry. This was a "nineteenth-century skull science paradigm", said David Hurst Thomas, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History.[36] Skulls are no longer used as the basis for classifying remains,[citation needed] as DNA evidence is more reliable.

Racial issues

In 2005, author Jack Hitt wrote an essay "Mighty White of You: Racial Preferences Color America's Oldest Skulls and Bones", in which he describes a systemic "racial preference" for Kennewick Man, and other old skeletons, to be of European origin. If this theory held true (and DNA evidence shows it does not), it would turn the tables on Indian claims of being the first inhabitants, white Europeans would be the victims of Indian invaders, and politically modern Indians would have less claim to sovereignty.[37]

The use of the word "Caucasoid" to describe Kennewick Man, and his facial reconstruction that appeared plausibly European, were taken by many to mean that Kennewick Man was "Caucasian", European, or "white", rather than an ancestor of present-day Native Americans,[17] although the term "Caucasoid" had also been applied to the Ainu of northern Japan. In 1998, The New York Times reported "White supremacist groups are among those who used Kennewick Man to claim that Caucasians came to America well before Native Americans."[38] Additionally, Asatru Folk Assembly, a racialist neopagan organization, sued to have the bones genetically tested before it was adjudicated that Kennewick Man was an ancestor of present-day Native Americans.[38]

Custody of Kennewick Man

In October 1998, the remains were deposited at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington. The Burke Museum was the court-appointed neutral repository for the remains, and did not exhibit them. They were then still legally the property of the US Army Corps of Engineers, as they were found on land under its custody.[39]

According to NAGPRA, if human remains are found on federal lands and their cultural affiliation to a Native American tribe can be established, the affiliated tribe may claim them. Two months after discovery in 1996, the Umatilla tribe requested custody of the remains so they could be reburied according to tribal tradition. It was contested by researchers who believed Kennewick Man was not affiliated with modern Indians.[40] The Umatilla argued that their oral history goes back 10,000 years, and they had been present on the territory since the dawn of time.[41] Native American tribes asserted that the claims that Kennewick Man was of non-Indian origin was an attempt to evade the law governing custodianship of ancient bones. The Corps of Engineers and the Clinton administration supported the Native American claim in what became a long-running lawsuit.[42]

Robson Bonnichsen and seven other anthropologists sued the United States for the right to conduct research. The anthropologists won the case in 2002, and on February 4, 2004, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit panel rejected an appeal brought by the United States Army Corps of Engineers and the Umatilla, Colville, Yakama, Nez Perce, and other tribes on the grounds that they were unable to show sufficient evidence of kinship.[43][44] Furthermore, the presiding judge found that the US government had acted in bad faith and awarded attorney's fees of $2,379,000 to the plaintiffs.[1]

On April 7, 2005, during the 109th Congress, United States senator John McCain introduced an amendment to NAGPRA, which (section 108) would have changed the definition of "Native American" from being that which "is indigenous to the United States" to "is or was indigenous to the United States".[45] However, the 109th Congress concluded without enacting the bill. By the bill's definition, Kennewick Man would have been classified as Native American regardless of whether any link to a contemporary tribe could be found.


In September 2016, in light of new DNA evidence associating Kennewick Man with modern day Indians, the 114th US House and Senate passed legislation to return the ancient bones to a coalition of Columbia Basin tribes. The coalition included the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, the Nez Perce Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, and the Wanapum Band of Priest Rapids.[46]

The remains of Kennewick Man were cataloged and removed from the Burke Museum on 17 February 2017. The following day, more than 200 members of five Columbia Plateau tribes were present at a burial of the remains, according to their traditions, at an undisclosed location.[6][47]

See also


  1. ^ His historical name is unknown. Monikers were invented as a means of identification. Kennewick Man follows the practice of naming a discovery after the place it was found. Ancient One is his Indian-given name.
  2. ^ "Scientists have found only about 50 skeletons of such antiquity, most of them fragmentary. Any new find can thus add crucial insight into the ongoing mystery of who first colonized the New World."[3]


  1. ^ a b c d e Preston (2014).
  2. ^ a b Stafford (2014).
  3. ^ a b c d Lemonick & Dorfman (2006).
  4. ^ Gulliford, Andrew (February 28, 2010). "Bones of Contention: The Repatriation of Native American Human Remains". The Public Historian. 18 (4). University of California Press. The Smithsonian Institution alone had 18,600 American Indian remains. Indians are further dehumanized by being exhibited alongside mastodons and dinosaurs and other extinct creatures. No other issue has touched a more sensitive chord than these disrespectful nineteenth-century collecting practices.
  5. ^ a b Rasmussen, Morten; Sikora, Martin; et al. (June 18, 2015). "The Ancestry and Affiliations of Kennewick Man". Nature. 523 (7561): 455–458. Bibcode:2015Natur.523..455R. doi:10.1038/nature14625. PMC 4878456. PMID 26087396.
    et al. list
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    • Martin Sikora
    • Anders Albrechtsen
    • Thorfinn Sand Korneliussen
    • J. Víctor Moreno-Mayar
    • G. David Poznik
    • Christoph P. E. Zollikofer
    • Marcia Ponce de León
    • Morten E. Allentoft
    • Ida Moltke
    • Hákon Jónsson
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  6. ^ a b "Tribes lay remains of Kennewick Man to rest". The Spokesman-Review. Spokane, Washington. February 20, 2017. Retrieved February 20, 2017.
  7. ^ a b c Kakaliqouras, Ann M. (2019). "The Repatriation of the Palaeoamericans: Kennewick Man/the Ancient One and the End of a Non-Indian Ancient North America". BJHS Themes. 4: 79–98. doi:10.1017/bjt.2019.9.
  8. ^ Stang (1996).
  9. ^ a b c d e f Custred (2000).
  10. ^ a b Chatters (2004).
  11. ^ a b c d e Chatters (2000).
  12. ^ Chatters et al. (2014).
  13. ^ a b Brenner et al. (2014).
  14. ^ Chatters (2014).
  15. ^ Cook (2014).
  16. ^ Zimmer, Carl (June 18, 2015). "New DNA results show Kennewick Man was Native American". The New York Times. Retrieved December 20, 2023.
  17. ^ a b Chatters (2001), p. 170.
  18. ^ Kaestle, Federica A. (September 2000). "Ch. 2: Report on DNA Analysis of the Remains of "Kennewick Man" from Columbia Park, Washington". Report on the DNA Testing Results of the Kennewick Human Remains from Columbia Park, Kennewick, Washington. Archived from the original on August 19, 2007.
  19. ^ Chatters (2001), p. 263: "The craniofacial characteristics of Paleo-Americans, Asians, and early Europeans, loosely resembling as they do the Ainu, Polynesian, and Australian peoples, show that neither major contributor to the Paleo-American gene pool had yet differentiated far from the ancestral, generalized Homo sapiens form."
  20. ^ King, Anna (July 23, 2006). "Kennewick Man's bones provide window to past". TriCity Herald. Archived from the original on December 10, 2006. Retrieved April 25, 2015.
  21. ^ a b Chatters (2001), p. 178-179.
  22. ^ a b c Powell, Joseph F.; Rose, Jerome C. (October 1999). "Ch. 2: Report on the Osteological Assessment of the Kennewick Man Skeleton". Report on the Non-Destructive Examination, Description, and Analysis of the Human Remains from Columbia Park, Kennewick, Washington. Department of the Interior and National Park Service. Archived from the original on August 29, 2007.
  23. ^ a b Chatters (2001), p. 182.
  24. ^ Morelle, Rebecca (June 18, 2015). "DNA reignites Kennewick Man debate". BBC News.
  25. ^ Owsley, Stafford & Williams (2014).
  26. ^ Berryman (2014).
  27. ^ McManamom, F. P., ed. (May 2004). "Kennewick Man". NPS Archaeology Program. Archived from the original on August 20, 2007.
  28. ^ Owsley & Jantz (2014).
  29. ^ Erlandson, J.; Braje, T., From Asia to the Americas by boat? Paleogeography, paleoecology, and stemmedpoints of the northwest Pacific (PDF), archived from the original (PDF) on September 19, 2018, retrieved April 23, 2015
  30. ^ Brace et al. (2014).
  31. ^ Tamm E, Kivisild T, Reidla M, Metspalu M, Smith DG, et al. (2007), "Beringian Standstill and Spread of Native American Founders", PLOS ONE, 2 (9): e829, Bibcode:2007PLoSO...2..829T, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000829, PMC 1952074, PMID 17786201
  32. ^ Fagundes NJ, Kanitz R, Eckert R, et al. (March 2008). "Mitochondrial population genomics supports a single pre-Clovis origin with a coastal route for the peopling of the Americas". Am. J. Hum. Genet. 82 (3): 583–92. doi:10.1016/j.ajhg.2007.11.013. PMC 2427228. PMID 18313026.
  33. ^ Adachi N.; Shinoda K; Umetsu K; Matsumura H. (2009), "Mitochondrial DNA analysis of Jomon skeletons from the Funadomari site, Hokkaido, and its implication for the origins of Native American, Am J Phys Anthropol. 2010 Mar; 141(3):504–05", American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 138 (3): 255–65, doi:10.1002/ajpa.20923, PMID 18951391, S2CID 21953365
  34. ^ Kemp, Brian M.; Malhi, Ripan S.; et al. (2007). "Genetic Analysis of Early Holocene Skeletal Remains From Alaska and its Implications for the Settlement of the Americas" (PDF). American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 132 (4): 605–621. doi:10.1002/ajpa.20543. PMID 17243155. Archived (PDF) from the original on April 18, 2015.
    et al. list
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    • Joseph G. Lorenz
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  35. ^ a b Stang (2012).
  36. ^ Greshko, Michael (June 20, 2015). "Modern Native Americans Related To Kennewick Man".
  37. ^ Hitt (2010).
  38. ^ a b Egan, Timothy (April 2, 1998). "Old Skull Gets White Looks, Stirring Dispute". The New York Times. Retrieved December 20, 2023.
  39. ^ "Kennewick Man". Burke Museum. Archived from the original on April 3, 2011. Retrieved October 12, 2012.
  40. ^ Minthorn, Armand (September 1996). "Ancient One / Kennewick Man - Human Remains Should Be Reburied". Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Archived from the original on August 12, 2014. Retrieved July 28, 2014.
  41. ^ Thomas, David Hurst (2001). Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity. Basic Books. p. Preface: xxii. ISBN 978-0465092253. Our oral history goes back 10,000 years. We know how time began and how Indian people were created. They can say whatever they want, the scientists. They are being disrespectful.
  42. ^ Hitt (2010), p. 256-257.
  43. ^ Phillips (2005).
  44. ^ Bonnichsen, et al., v. United States, et al (PDF), United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals), February 4, 2004, no. 02-35994, archived from the original (PDF) on June 21, 2010
  45. ^ "S. 536, 109th Cong., Native American Omnibus Act of 2005 (reported in Senate)". Library of Congress, US. 2005. Archived from the original on November 22, 2015. Retrieved February 26, 2008.
  46. ^ Connelly, Joel (September 28, 2016). "Bones of 'Kennewick Man' returning home for burial". Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Retrieved December 20, 2023.
  47. ^ Paulus, Kristi (February 20, 2017). "Kennewick Man finally buried by local tribes". Retrieved March 29, 2018.



Further reading

  • Adler, Jerry. "A 9,000-Year-Old Secret." New York: Newsweek. July 25, 2005. Vol. 146, issue 4; p. 52. (subscription required)
  • Benedict, Jeff. No bone unturned: Inside the world of a top forensic scientist and his work on America's most notorious crimes and disasters. New York: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2003. ISBN 006095888X.
  • Carrillo, Jo (ed.). Readings in American Indian Law: Recalling the Rhythm of Survival. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 1998.[ISBN missing]
  • Dewar, Elaine. Bones, Discovering the First Americans. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2002, ISBN 0786709790.
  • Downey, Roger. Riddle of the Bones: Politics, Science, Race, and the Story of Kennewick Man. New York: Springer, 2000. ISBN 978-0387988771.
  • Gear, Kathleen O'Neal, and Gear, Michael W. People of the Raven. New York: TOR Books, 2004, ISBN 0765347571.
  • Jones, Peter N. Respect for the Ancestors: American Indian Cultural Affiliation in the American West. Boulder: Bauu Press, 2005. ISBN 0972134921.
  • Raff, Jennifer. Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas. Twelve (2022). ISBN 978-1538749715.
  • Redman, Samuel J. Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016. ISBN 978-0674660410.
  • Thomas, David Hurst. Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity. New York: Basic Books, 2000. ISBN 0465092241.

46°13′23″N 119°8′36″W / 46.22306°N 119.14333°W / 46.22306; -119.14333