Skull and reconstruction of Kennewick Man

The battle for Kennewick Man

One of the oldest humans found in North America, 9,000-year-old hunter's existence was suppressed by First Nations and the U.S. Army

VICTORIA – My Christmas reading included a fascinating new book called Kennewick Man, a study of skeletal remains discovered in 1996 on the bank of the Columbia River in eastern Washington.

He was an ancient hunter buried by human hands just south of B.C. almost 9,000 years ago, in the Early Holocene period following the last Ice Age. Among the oldest humans found along the West Coast of North America, he sparked an unprecedented battle by the Smithsonian Institution to examine the skeleton and publish the book late last year.

The most controversial evidence came from the skull. It doesn’t match the classic Mongoloid profile of modern aboriginal people, key to the theory that the earliest humans reached North America by land bridge from Siberia to Alaska as glaciers receded.

Smithsonian scientists confirmed initial reports that Kennewick Man is a closer match with early Polynesians, and the Ainu people who remain in Japan today. He lived until about age 40, surviving for years with a stone spear point stuck in his hip.

The authors conclude from chemical analysis that “Kennewick Man could not have been a long-time resident of the area where he was found, but instead lived most of his adult life somewhere along the Northwest and North Pacific coast where marine mammals were readily available.”

This suggests migration by sea, perhaps from a great distance.

The U.S. Army seized the skeleton. The scientists sued and eventually won the right to a brief examination. The court case exposed brutal and illegal actions of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and federal departments to destroy the site and intimidate the scientists.

U.S. law demanded all remains from before European settlement be repatriated for burial by local tribes, without examination.

Umatilla tribe spokesman Armand Minthorn wrote in 1996: “We view this practice as desecration of the body and a violation of our most deeply-held religious beliefs.

“From our oral histories, we know that our people have been part of this land since the beginning of time. We do not believe that our people migrated here from another continent, as the scientists do.”

The head of the Society for American Archaeology tried to get the researchers to drop their lawsuit, fearing it would interfere with fragile relationships with area tribes.

The U.S. Justice Department warned the Smithsonian that lead scientist Douglas Owsley and others might be in criminal conflict of interest as federal employees suing the government. Even the White House weighed in against them.

Meanwhile the skeleton was mishandled and later stored in substandard conditions at a Seattle museum, where it remains today. Parts of both femurs were lost, and scientists were falsely accused of taking them. They had been removed by tribal representatives and secretly buried.

Kennewick Man was found as the army was in tense negotiations with tribes on salmon fishing rights on the Columbia, their demand for removal of dams, and the $100 billion cleanup of the Hanford nuclear site.

The scientists finally won their case in 2004, with a ruling that the skeleton is so old there isn’t enough evidence to show it is related to the current tribes. The judge found the army repeatedly misled the court, and assessed the government $2.4 million in costs.

The U.S. Army still controls the skeleton and denies requests for further study. The spear point, for example, could show the location where he was injured.

One final irony. Analysis shows Kennewick Man ate mostly salmon in his later years, around 6300 BCE. These are the salmon runs wiped out by dams built by U.S. Army engineers before the signing of the Columbia River Treaty with B.C.

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Follow on Twitter: @tomfletcherbc

[Smithsonian magazine account here]

Just Posted

Province announces $100-million grant funding for Northwest communities

The Northern Capital and Planning Grant will go to four regional districts and 22 municipalities

Prince Rupert Gas Transmission project searches for partners

TransCanada is renewing permits for its natural gas pipeline project to North Coast.

Coastal GasLink stops work to investigate archaeological find

OGC archaeologists are en route to the Houston-area site where Unist’ot’en report finding stone tools

All Native Basketball Tournament Day 5: Recap

Highlights and results from day 5 at the All Native Tournament

All Native Basketball Tournament Day 6: Preview

Look ahead to all the action scheduled for Feb. 16 at the All Native Tournament

‘Just like Iron Man’: Calgary surgeon undergoes experimental spinal surgery

Dr. Richi Gill was in a freak accident on a boogie board during a family vacation in Hawaii

‘How did we get here?’: B.C. mom of transplant recipient worries about measles outbreaks

Addison, 7, cannot get a live vaccine because she has a heart transplant

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh calls for public inquiry over SNC-Lavalin questions

Vancouver member of Parliament Jody Wilson-Raybould resigned from cabinet last week

Canadian airlines waiting for guidance from Ottawa over X gender option

Major U.S. airlines said they will change their process so passengers can identify themselves along non-binary lines

Moose Hide campaign takes message to Canadian schools

Campaign launches new K-12 education platform

‘Violent’ B.C. man wanted on Canada-wide warrant

Prince George man with ties to Vernon sought by police

Homicide police investigate assault turned deadly in Surrey

60-year-old man died at hospital after assault

Trudeau’s principal secretary, Gerald Butts, resigns amid SNC-Lavalin furor

Butts categorically denies the accusation that he or anyone else in the PMO improperly pressured former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould

Deported B.C. man who came to Canada as a baby granted chance at return

Len Van Heest was deported to the Netherlands in 2017

Most Read