SACRAMENTO, Calif. - A team of scientists began tests on the skeletal
remains known as Kennewick Man on July 6. The nearly 10,000-year-old
skeleton is currently housed at the University of Washington in Seattle.
The scientists were acting on a federal court decision in 2002, backed up
by a federal appeals court last year, that allowed them to commence work on
the ancient remains.
Attorney Alan Schneider, who represented the scientists, said the tests
were to determine a "baseline" of information and would not be immediately
conducting tests using chemicals on the remains.
Schneider said that though the cranial area of the skeleton is largely
intact, the other parts of the remains are in 350 separate pieces and will
have to be fitted together without glue.
"[The scientists] will make sure that the skeleton represents just a single
person, though there is no reason now to believe that it does not," said
Since their discovery in 1996 by college students near the town of
Kennewick, for which he is named, the remains have sparked a controversy
that pitted several area American Indian tribes against scientists. The
discovery also touched off an often-heated racial debate that called into
question previously held notions of the settlement of the Americas.
Four area tribes - Colville, Nez Perce Umatilla, Wanapum and Yakama - had
asked that the remains be repatriated to them under the Native American
Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), signed by the first
President Bush in 1990.
Calls to the tribes seeking comment were not returned by press time.
The tribes claimed that their origin lore had pegged them to the land since
the beginning of time and that any remains found in the area, including
Kennewick Man (whom they have dubbed "Ancient One"), are undoubtedly those
of a direct ancestor.
Reconstructed features on the remarkably intact skeleton revealed certain
characteristics that caused some to declare the skeletal remains as
Caucasian, resulting for some in a mystery: How did a Caucasian come to be
in the Americas some 8,300 years before the Vikings and 8,700 years before
Some scientists claimed a possible link to the Ainu of Japan, a group with
Caucasian features who are the Aboriginal people of the island. It was not
much of a stretch, they argued, that a group of these people found their
way across the Bering land bridge to America. This is the route most
commonly believed taken by the ancestors of American Indians, although some
new theories dispute this.
Some scientists even claimed links of the remains to the Polynesian and
Southeast Asian people. And recently, the Chicago Tribune reported that
Smithsonian anthropologist Dennis Stanford has theorized that ancient
seafarers from Europe had drifted along an Atlantic land bridge and were
the earliest settlers of the Americas.
Unfortunately, some anti-Indian individuals and white supremacist groups
have latched onto the Caucasian idea and have used it as justification to
support their opposition to modern-day American Indian rights. A white
supremacist group originally tried to join the lawsuit filed by the
scientists but later backed out.
However, there are also a variety of voices that take a different position
altogether. Among the more prominent are noted American Indian scholar Vine
Deloria Jr. and David Hurst Thomas, director of anthropology at the
American Museum of Natural History.
They and others have argued that it is folly to place modern racial
definitions on a nearly 10,000-year-old person. Citing climactic, flora and
fauna changes, the argument goes, it would be impossible to accurately
describe exactly to which ethnic group Kennewick Man belonged.
However, Deloria in particular has been outspoken in his criticism of the
way the case was handled and has said it would have just been better to
give the remains to the tribe.
Deloria and Thomas have also advocated a theory that the settling of the
Americas was not done by a single homogenous group from Asia, but was
populated by people from various sources. They cite the case of Australian
Aborigines who - without benefit of a land bridge - settled Australia some
40,000 years ago, presumably using some kind of water craft.