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Who was he? Where did he come from?
In the summer of 1996, two visitors to a park in Kennewick, Washington, stumbled upon a human skull near the bank of the Columbia River. The site was several miles above the place where the Columbia is joined by the Snake River, coming from Idaho, and a bit farther above the point where the Columbia descends from the high desert of the western interior through the basalt-ribbed Columbia Gorge to Pacific tidewater and eventually the great western ocean.
The park visitors informed the police, who called in the coroner. The coroner inspected the skull and surmised that it was much older than the human remains he normally dealt with. He summoned an archeologist friend, and together they uncovered additional bones, amounting, by that evening, to an almost complete skeleton.
The archeologist confirmed the coroner’s judgment that these were old bones, well beyond the responsibility of contemporary law enforcement. So they took the bones not to the police morgue but to the archeologist’s laboratory. They laid the bones out and proceeded to examine them more closely.
An obvious first guess was that this was the skeleton of an American Indian who had died many decades or perhaps centuries before. But to the archeologist the skull didn’t look like any Indian skull he had ever seen. He wondered if it came from an early American settler of the region. The Methodist church had operated a mission near the confluence of the Columbia and Snake rivers in the middle of the nineteenth century. Perhaps this was someone associated with the mission. Or it could have been a fur-trapper, one of the legendary mountain men who had roamed the area even earlier.
But then he examined the teeth and discovered that they lacked the cavities characteristic of Americans and their European ancestors—or indeed of anyone from a culture that had experienced an agricultural revolution that added sticky starches to the human diet.
This got the archeologist thinking that this skeleton might be really old. He examined the rest of the bones and found another clue. Embedded in one of the hipbones was the tip of a stone spear. The person whose remains rested on his table had been wounded during an age when stone was the state of weapons art. Apparently the wound had not been fatal, for the bone had grown partly around the tip. The man—the size and thickness of the bones indicated a male—had lived years past his encounter with the spear. But that had been a long time ago.
The archeologist arranged for a radiocarbon dating of a bone sample. The test declared the sample, and hence the skeleton, to be more than 9,000 years old.
This was exciting news. No skeleton that old and so nearly complete had ever been found in the Pacific Northwest. Few comparable specimens of humanity’s deep past had been found anywhere in the Americas.
Kennewick, Washington, is not a large city. Word got out about the unusual skeleton. Someone—perhaps thinking to boost local business—dubbed the mysterious individual “Kennewick Man.” The fact that he seemed to be of a different lineage than the peoples known to have inhabited the region added to the excitement. Who was he? Where had he come from? Maybe Kennewick Man would prompt a revolution in anthropology, or at least a rewriting of American prehistory.
Two groups in Kennewick conspicuously refused to share in the excitement. The first was the Native American community. Like Indian tribes elsewhere in the United States, the Umatilla and other tribes indigenous to the upper Columbia valley harbored bitter memories of their dealings with whites. The Umatilla had been devastated by disease, war and treaties signed under duress. Grave-robbing by anthropologists and collectors had added insult to the injuries. The current case seemed more of the same. Representatives of several of the Columbia tribes flatly rejected the idea that the discovered skeleton was not one of their ancestors. They demanded the return of the skeleton, whom they called the Ancient One, for proper burial.
An unlikely ally of the Indians was the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. During much of the twentieth century the Corps had contributed mightily to the destruction of the way of life of the Columbia tribes. Starting in the 1930s the Corps had overseen construction of a series of dams that had converted the wild river into a staircase of reservoirs. The reservoirs served farmers, by providing water for irrigation, and city dwellers, by controlling floods and generating hydroelectricity. But the dams nearly eliminated the salmon runs on which the tribes had long depended. While the salmon had come up the river, the Columbia tribes had been among the wealthiest tribes in all of what became the United States, commanding a trade that stretched from the Pacific to the crest of the Rocky Mountains and beyond. The end of the salmon left the Columbia tribes impoverished and bereft of the culture their wealth had supported.
Institutions don’t have consciences. And if the individuals who built the dams felt guilty, they were mostly dead or retired. Yet the Corps had reason to mend its ways toward the Indians. Laws and courts had become more sympathetic to Indians, and Indian lawyers had grown more savvy in dealing with the Corps and other institutions of government. The Corps had continuing responsibility for navigation on the Columbia, and it had projects in the works that might be blocked by Indian opposition.
The Corps sided with the Indians. The park where the skeleton had been discovered was managed by the Corps, and the Corps claimed custody of the bones, that they might be delivered to the Indians.
The archeologist protested, and called in allies of his own. Together they fought the Corps and the Indians. If the skeleton was delivered to the Indians and buried, the most important archeological find in the recent history of the American West would be lost to science forever. The scientists rejected the Indians’ claim to Kennewick Man, saying that he was not one of them. That was what made the discovery so fascinating. At the very least, research on the bones ought to be allowed to continue, to determine what his identity was. If the research proved the Indians right, they could receive the skeleton then.
The case went to the courts. The proceedings unfolded slowly. Meanwhile the bones were placed in escrow, under lock and key in a neutral museum.
Finally, in 2004, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of the scientists. Kennewick Man did not seem to be related to the Indians, the court said. The Corps of Engineers must not turn the skeleton over to the tribes. And it must make the skeleton available to the scientists so that they could continue their research.
The scientists did so, with great care. And in 2014, a team consisting of 48 authors and 17 additional researchers, editors and photographers produced a 680-page report affirming the judgment of the original archeologist. Kennewick Man was not direct kin of the Columbia tribes. In fact he was not part of any modern human population. He was most closely related to the Ainu people of Japan and other islanders of the western Pacific.
The finding was revolutionary. It upended received notions that migration across the Bering land bridge during the last ice age explained the peopling of the Americas prior to contact with Europeans. Certainly the Bering migration had occurred; the new finding didn’t challenge that. But there had been another migration, probably by sea-farers working the coast of the land bridge or arriving after it had been covered by rising seas.
To confirm the possibility of such a journey, a hardy experimentalist paddled a kayak from Japan to Alaska. Researchers dubbed the newly discovered route the “Kelp Highway.” Anthropologists and historians quickly began revising their accounts of the roots of human habitation in the Americas.
The Corps of Engineers had complied with the court order on Kennewick Man grudgingly. They had let the scientists examine the bones for sixteen days, enough for them to take measurements, make scans and do the other things they considered necessary for their analysis. But then they whisked the bones away once more.
During the decade of the scientists’ subsequent work, techniques for retrieving fossil DNA improved. The scientists sought additional access to the bones. But the Corps refused. And when the scientists released their report, they stated that they would have had greater confidence in their conclusions if they had been able to employ the latest DNA techniques, which were more reliable than the tests and comparisons they had applied.
The Corps belatedly decided to cooperate, concluding that the news about Kennewick Man couldn’t get any worse.
In fact, it got much better—for the Corps but especially for the Columbia tribes. An independent laboratory sampled Kennewick Man’s DNA and concluded that he was more closely related to Native American peoples than to any other identifiable group. Kennewick Man was no lost Ainu but in fact the Ancient One the Umatilla leaders had steadfastly claimed him to be.
And so, in the late winter of 2017, the remains were handed over to representatives of the Columbia tribes. With due ceremony the skeleton was reinterred, in an undisclosed spot in the desert safe from the troubled waters of the Columbia and the profane attention of those who disrespected Indian tradition.