The next stop on our journey is a little bit west of the Anzick Boy, as discussed in Chapter 6 of this project. This time we are around 9000 years ago, in the state now known as Washington.
We are at the teal dot on the west coast of the USA, circa 9,000 years ago
This find is known as the Kennewick Man, or The Ancient One, and has a long and controversial story behind it. I am going to use a few selections here to set the scene.
“In the summer of 1996, two college students in Kennewick, Washington, stumbled on a human skull while wading in the shallows along the Columbia River. They called the police. The police brought in the Benton County coroner, Floyd Johnson, who was puzzled by the skull, and he in turn contacted James Chatters, a local archaeologist. Chatters and the coroner returned to the site and, in the dying light of evening, plucked almost an entire skeleton from the mud and sand. They carried the bones back to Chatters’ lab and spread them out on a table.” (Smithsonian/history)
What was evident right away was how complete the skeleton, which is often not the case with these kind of finds. To see a picture of the skeleton, be sure to check out the NPR link below. There is some great material there, which I am only going to be able to discuss a small segment here.
Okay, so a couple of college students stumble over this really complete skeleton, and almost immediately a controversy breaks out. One of the big reasons being, and something I have mentioned before; the conflict between respect for the dead and the need for future study and research. I will take a few more excerpts to really put this into perspective.
“The fight has been raging for 20 years, ever since a couple of college kids stumbled — literally — across a human skull while wading in a river in Washington state. They thought they’d found a murder victim, and flagged down a nearby cop, who called in a local expert. Instead, they had discovered some of the oldest, most complete human remains ever dug up in North America.
Archaeologists dubbed the skeleton Kennewick Man, after the place he was found, and hoped his bones could help settle one of the greatest mysteries in the story of human migration: how did Homo sapiens, originating in Africa, end up in the Americas?” (NPR)
That sets up one side of this conflict. The archaeologists that excavated the skeleton had a lot of questions, and there was a great deal of testing and research to do before they could even begin to answer some of those questions. It is well known that research and testing is a time intensive process, and so they would need to hold onto the bones for future study. In addition, this says nothing about tests and research tools that have not been discovered yet. If a skeleton is reburied, scientists and future researchers won’t have access to it for future study.
However (and this is kind of a long excerpt;
“But a group of Native American tribes considered The Ancient One, as they call him, a direct tribal ancestor — and they didn’t need science to explain how people ended up here. “From our oral histories, we know that our people have been part of this land since the beginning of time,” a leader of the Umatilla tribe wrote in a statement at the time. “We do not believe that our people migrated here from another continent, as the scientists do.”
Working together, five tribes demanded that The Ancient One’s remains not be poked or prodded in the name of science, and instead be promptly reburied in accordance with tribal custom — and under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. That federal law, passed in 1990, requires certain Native American artifacts and remains to be handed over to culturally affiliated tribes or provable descendants.
“The tribes had good reason to be sensitive,” writes Smithsonian Magazine’s Douglas Preston. “The early history of museum collecting of Native American remains is replete with horror stories. In the 19th century, anthropologists and collectors looted fresh Native American graves and burial platforms, dug up corpses and even decapitated dead Indians lying on the field of battle and shipped the heads to Washington for study. Until NAGPRA, museums were filled with American Indian remains acquired without regard for the feelings and religious beliefs of native people.” “ (NPR)
The Native American’s claim was wrapped in a deep history of colonialism and oppression on top of the rights of the dead. This is a big issue, and I certainly don’t have the space to detail it all here. I think the excerpt above gives a rough idea of what we were talking about. It is the intersection of a lot of issues that have had a strong (and often negative) effect on Native peoples across the county.
It is an ongoing struggle for sure; as it highlighted nicely by this excerpt from NPR,
““It’s the chafe between science and spirituality,” writes Kevin Taylor at Indian Country Today, “between people who say the remains have so much to tell us about the ancient human past that they should remain available for research, versus people who feel a kinship with the ancient bones and say they should be reburied to show proper reverence for the dead.” “
I have a lot of thoughts about this, as both a student of anthropology AND a spirit worker/shamanic practitioner. I will come back to this at the end of this piece, because there is more of this story to tell.
So we have these two “sides” in conflict about the ultimate fate the Kennewick Man (anthropologists et al)/ The Ancient One (Native Peoples et al), and is the case with many of these things, the conflict has played out of the last twenty years or so.
“But for these bones to fall under the protection of NAGPRA, there had to be proof of a connection between the remains and the people fighting to reclaim them today. The scientists said no such connection existed. The tribal leaders insisted it did; they could feel it in their bones. “ (NPR)
That was the crux of many of the ethical as well as legal fights that took place over the last two decades.
“That question ended up spawning an unprecedented legal and ethical battle in which prominent archaeologists and anthropologists would sue the U.S. government for the chance to study the bones. Femur bones would go missing under unexplained circumstances. Bitter arguments would be pitched over the migration patterns and feeding habits of sea lions, the curvature and racial implications of cheekbones, the validity of oral tradition as courtroom evidence. “ (NPR)
“The skeleton was found on federal land, so it technically fell under U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ control.” (Smithsonian/history)
“In 2004, a San Francisco federal appeals court sided with researchers, citing previous analyses that showed Kennewick Man was not Native American, writes Guarino.” (Smithsonian/history)
On and on it went, and for the most part to verdicts favored the scientists. Now, I am not trying to set up the scientists as bad guys, but they didn’t come out looking spotless either. That being said, it is hard to underestimate what we have learned from the Kennewick Man. I wouldn’t be here writing about my ancestral connection to him if we didn’t.
“Eventually, the scientists did get a legally approved (though very brief and highly constricted) look at Kennewick Man, and what they learned is truly amazing. Based on the shape of his skull and other features, they theorized that he or his forebears may have been Asian coastal seafarers. They may have journeyed by boat along the south Alaskan shoreline and ultimately all the way down the Americas, hugging the coast and living off kelp, fish, sea lions and the like.”
This is the “coastal migration” theory of the peopling of the Americas, which suggests that a wave, or waves, of people traveled and lived along the Pacific coast long before other travelers chased herds of tasty mastodons and mammoths across a land bridge into Alaska.
They also learned a tremendous amount about what Kennewick Man’s life may have been like. Here’s more from Preston:
“Kennewick Man spent a lot of time holding something in front of him while forcibly raising and lowering it; the researchers theorize he was hurling a spear downward into the water, as seal hunters do. His leg bones suggest he often waded in shallow rapids, and he had bone growths consistent with ‘surfer’s ear,’ caused by frequent immersion in cold water. His knee joints suggest he often squatted on his heels. … Many years before Kennewick Man’s death, a heavy blow to his chest broke six ribs. Because he used his right hand to throw spears, five broken ribs on his right side never knitted together. This man was one tough dude.” “ (NPR)
It is hard to understate how much we have learned from finds such as this one. Like I said, without his DNA data, I would not know I was related to this man in any way. However, the case of the Kennewick Man is one I learned about in my college days; for exactly the reasons I have laid out here. This find is a great case study concerning how we practice science, as well as how we treat the dead.
I am not trying to mince words here. I do feel that the Native Peoples really got the shaft in this case, up until 2015 (I will get to that in a minute). The unethical practices of some of the scientists was really distasteful, and how both federal law (NAGPRA) as well as the legal system being used for a further tool of exploitation and oppression of Native People’s really leaves a foul taste in my mouth.
But the story doesn’t end there. In 2015 new research began to pour out that supported the claims of the Native Peoples.
“A group of scientists based in Denmark made a major breakthrough in 2015, after they recovered DNA from a fragment of hand bone and used it to map Kennewick Man’s genetic code. When they compared that code with DNA from different populations around the world, the geneticists found it was closest to that of modern Native Americans. Their findings, published in the journal Nature in July 2015, contradicted previous assertions by scientists linking Kennewick Man to Polynesians or to the Ainu people of Japan.
At the initiative of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, scientists at the University of Chicago were recently able to independently verify the results of that unprecedented DNA study.” (History)
That DNA is why I am able to talk about this at all. Not only did it confirm my relation to the Kennewick Man, it was also the reason that the bones will be given back to Native Peoples, and proved that their claim was a valid one.
“Now, members of the Colville tribe and four others say they’ll work together to complete the repatriation — or reburial — process, and the government has shown zero interest in standing in their way. “ (NPR)
I do not know whether or not the Kennewick Man/Ancient One has been reburied as of this time. But this case does open up a lot of questions about the practice of archaeology, and the role of Native Peoples, as well as the general treatment of the dead.
“One of the scientists involved in revealing a genetic connection between Kennewick Man and living Native Americans invited members of the five tribes into the lab, where they put on body suits and entered a “clean room” to pay their respects to The Ancient One. In the wake of Kennewick, scientists have been reflecting on ways to work with indigenous communities when these kinds of conflicts come up:
“Many other researchers are taking a similar approach. [Dennis O’Rourke, a biological anthropologist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City] says that there is no one-size-fits-all strategy to working with native communities. He finds some of the North American Arctic groups he works with eager to contribute to his research, others are less so; and their opinions shift over time.
” ‘We really have to change the top-down approach, where we come to people and say “these are our research questions and you should participate, because — SCIENCE,” ‘ says Jennifer Raff, an anthropological geneticist at the University of Texas at Austin.” (NPR)
Yet, on the other hand;
Other scientists say there’s a real danger in altering scientific methods to accommodate religious belief. Elizabeth Weiss, an anthropologist at San Jose State, outlined impediments to her own work in a 2001 paper on the Kennewick controversy, and argued that regulations like NAGPRA require far too little evidence proving a cultural connection to modern-day native communities. She also suggested that such regulations — which increased around the world in the wake of NAGPRA — can have a chilling effect on scientific research:
“Consider having dedicated a large part of one’s life to unearthing the materials that are now being examined. Even casts and other important works — such as videotapes, photos, and excavation records — are in increasing danger of confiscation. Some scientists have expressed fear that their federal grants would be in jeopardy if they objected too openly to current policies. Under such circumstances, most scientists do not even begin ‘high-risk’ projects. Finds that could threaten Native American origin beliefs are especially likely to be targeted. Defendants could become embroiled for years in expensive lawsuits that neither they nor their institutions can afford …
“The politics of bone gathering in Africa are notorious … and one shudders to imagine what might happen if activists could convince modern Africans to claim early human skeletons as their ancestors, so that they too could be reburied.” (NPR)
I said I would circle back to this, and here it is. This whole case sets up a clear example of how science can conflict with oral histories, indigenous traditions, and the general respect for the dead. In my opinion, I think it is possible to have our cake and eat it to, it is a question of balance to me. I agree with Raff, in which there is no silver bullet for these issues. That being said, I think there is certainly a case to be made for collaboration instead of competition. When we are talking about skeletal remains, we are not just talking about objects without a context. We are talking about the remains of the dead, and their relationship to their possible still living descendants and traditions.
As both student of anthropology and a spirit worker, I can see this from both sides. I agree partially with Weiss, that there is a real possibility that science may suffer if that uneasy balance is disturbed. As I have already said, I wouldn’t be here talking about the Kennewick Man if it wasn’t for everything we have learned from studying the finds.
If this series has shown anything, is that I can claim “early skeletons” among my ancestors. However, I wouldn’t have been able to do that without science. I think we can find a balance between science, and respect for the dead.
Kennewick Man/The Ancient One: Sadly, I do not have an exact percentage match for this one. The data is not included in the calculation tool I use. However, I do know that I do match this one, but it is a low count. I would put our relationship in the “distant relative category.”
Thanks for reading!