Kennewick Man

This is a sad story. Kennewick Man is the best preserved early American. A beautiful, almost complete skeleton with a Clovis-type stone point embedded in its pelvis was discovered near Kennewick, Washington, a few years ago. Astonishingly, the skeleton looked physically unlike modern-day native Americans. The closest likely relationship is with northeast Asian aboriginals, of which the best studied are the Ainu, a people hanging on as a despised minority group in Northern Japan. The Ainu may be the original inhabitants of the Japanese islands, pushed back by the invading early Japanese. The Ainu are large, stocky, hairy people, probably more adapted to cold climates than the Japanese, and showing features that were also evolved (separately) in Europe at the same latitudes.

A campaign to sabotage scientific work on the skeleton has been waged for years by a group of Indian tribes who are scared to death that perhaps, just perhaps, the early immigrants to this continent may not have been their ancestors. The campaign against proper scientific study of this important find is emotional, not rational, and is in my view a terrible display of racism.

It took a group of scientists to file a lawsuit against the Corps of Engineers, but finally a judge ordered that there should be a limited, non-destructive examination of the skeleton. (Of course, the Indian tribes appealed, and it was 2004 before they lost enough times to give up. Now we may get to do some science, though don't hold your breath: the fossils are still under the control of the Feds, which have never been in favor of a full investigation. Article by Chatters, the first anthropologist to work on the fossil.

The National Park Service has published reports on Kennewick Man.. The details are fascinating, but here are some highlights. Kennewick Man was a tall slender man, 45 years old or so, perhaps 5 feet 8 or 9 inches tall, and in good health. He had been buried. As a teenager, he had had some ribs broken and a stone spear point sunk deep into his pelvis. He had apparently healed completely, and there is no obvious cause of death in the skeleton.

Story from the New York Times, October 16, 1999.

Summary story, New York Times, November 9, 1999.

In January 2000, radiocarbon tests on the skeleton showed that it was over 9000 years old, in keeping with the anatomical evidence and the cultural evidence of the spear-point embedded in the pelvis. Astoundingly, the Park Service seemed more likely than ever to return the skeleton for burial with no further research, an appallingly ignorant attitude, if true. Then the Army Corps of Engineers deliberately covered the discovery site with boulders and debris, so it is not accessible for any archaeological investigation either.

Skull Wars is a book about this and other conflicts between anthropologists and archaeologists and Native Americans. There is plenty of blame to go around.

After all the fuss, it may not be that simple to extract information from the Kennewick Man skeleton. BBC News OnLine, July 21, 2004.

However, our techniques for recovering ancient DNA have improved dramatically in the ten years that Kennewick Man has remained unstudied in Seattle, and it is surely time that we revisited this unique specimen. After all, if a sample from a single finger bone from Denisova could yield a complete genome from a much older specimen, surely we could try to get Kennewick Man's genome and resolve the scientific questions about his provenance and ancestry.

Page last revised March 26, 2013.

Links checked March 26, 2013.

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