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

Paramedics union raises alarm over spike in out-of-service ambulances

Staffing shortages affecting service levels in Kootenays

Business Profile: Miller brings nearly 30 years of experience to Golden Home Building Centre

Are you thinking of starting a project around the house, fixing something… Continue reading

Bacchus Books hosts Gerritt Shumyk March 25

A cozy venue, nestled in the heart of downtown Golden, hosts musicians… Continue reading

Isaac Tetrault brings home karate trophy, Golden competitors win medals

Submitted Golden Shotokan Karate travelled to Port Moody on March 9 for… Continue reading

Edmonton judge rules Omar Khadr’s sentence has expired

Eight-year sentence imposed in 2010 would have ended last October had Khadr remained in custody

B.C. river cleanup crew finds bag of discarded sex toys

Chilliwack volunteers stumble on unexpected find while removing 600 lbs of trash from riverway

Trudeau sells housing plan in visit to hot real estate market in B.C.

Trudeau said the budget contains measures to help first-time buyers

Norway opens probe into why cruise ship ventured into storm

The Viking Sky was headed for southern Norway when it had engine problems on Saturday afternoon

Fired B.C. farmland commission chair backs NDP rule changes

Richard Bullock agrees with Lana Popham, ALC records don’t

Michael Dunahee’s disappearance remains the largest probe in Victoria police history

The four-year old Victoria boy went missing without a trace on March 24, 1991

Kamloops chamber of commerce director let go after controversial Facebook posts

Facebook account had derogatory comments about Muslims, Justin Trudeau

B.C. RCMP officer cleared after Taser incident seriously injures woman

Woman with knives refused to comply with orders therefore officer used appropriate level of force

‘Bikinishe’ swimwear retailer prompts Better Business Bureau warning

Watchdog has gotten dozens of complaints about company, which has been using fake Vancouver address

Most Read