Claims for the Remains Douglas W. Owsley
Head for Physical Anthropology,
National Museum of Natural History,
Deciding to initiate a lawsuit is rarely easy, particularly one that sues the
federal government. But, in the case of Kennewick Man, there was no
Everything I was told about him suggested that Kennewick Man did not have
physical features characteristic of Native Americans. I've been measuring,
analyzing, and evaluating Native American remains, particularly those from the
western half of North America, for the 25 years of my professional career. The
database I've developed in that time with Dr. Richard Jantz of the University
of Tennessee is comprehensive and detailed. Our cranial measurements allow us
to trace population movements and draw conclusions about tribal affiliation.
Kennewick Man's description didn't fit any group I knew of. My requests to
study the skeleton (to the Army Corps of Engineers and to the Umatilla tribe to
whom the Corps had assigned the remains) went unanswered; the skeleton was to
be returned and likely reburied in less than a few weeks. In order to learn,
scientifically, who Kennewick Man was, immediate intervention was necessary.
Kennewick Man has been dated to about 9,000 years ago. Few securely dated,
well-preserved Paleo-American skeletons have been discovered. Some of them have
been reburied, notably a 10,675-year-old female found near Buhl, Idaho and an
8,000-year-old skeleton found in Hourglass Cave in the Colorado Rockies.
Neither was adequately studied by scientists. Yet, there's nothing in the
NAGPRA regulationsthat prevents study. [NAGPRA is the Native American
Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, under which tribes may file claims to
remains if they can show a cultural affiliation to them.] To keep Kennewick Man
above ground until some of the unresolved issues brought about by ambiguous
NAGPRA terms and restrictive interpretations of them could be addressed, we
Nothing in the NAGPRA regulations, Owsley
says, prevents scientific study of early Americans such as Kennewick
What do we hope to learn from Kennewick Man? That's not easy to answer until
many scientists from different backgrounds have a chance to examine him. It's
remarkable how much can be learned from a skeleton; bones can tell us a great
deal about a person's life. I'm reminded of the Ice Man, found in an Italian
glacier and only half as old as Kennewick Man. His story is of great pride and
interest not only to the people in the region where he was found, but also
internationally. Information gained through the multidisciplinary study of him
has greatly enhanced our understanding of this ancient culture and people of
Europe. For example, scientists noted puncture marks in his leg and ankle and
referred to them as "tattoos." Another scientist, noting the location of the
tattoos, correlated them with acupuncture points. So now, instead of a single
individual with body markings, we have indications of a different behavior.
That kind of building upon bits of basic data is what science is all about. The
more scientists who are able to examine a skeleton, the more likely we are to
arrive at the truth. Even now, the few scientists who have seen Kennewick Man
disagree on whether he had three broken ribs or six, whether his right arm was
broken or his left elbow, whether the stone point in his hip hastened his death
or was fully healed over when he died.
discovered that five skeletons unearthed at Jamestown Colony are not Native
American as originally supposed, but African. This exemplifies why scientists
should be able to thoroughly study early skeletal remains, he says.
That's why I believe that Kennewick Man should be available for further study.
We can easily miss what we aren't looking for. It takes all of us, coming from
our different perspectives and using our various expertise to learn everything
we can from a skeleton and to resolve the differences we find. We are now able
to learn much more than scientists could a generation ago; our techniques are
better, our technology more sophisticated. For example, using current
databases, I was able to determine that five skeletons unearthed at Jamestown
Colony are not Native American as they were identified in the 1950's; they are
African. Historic documents confirm their presence in Jamestown colony, but the
record is limited. Valuable evidence of Black History would have been lost if
the remains had been given to local tribes for burial. In the same way,
scientists in the future will be able to learn much more than we now can.
Furthermore, they will have new questions because scientific interests evolve
and theoretical paradigms shift.
Owsley fears that if scientists in
this country find they are legally unable to study ancient skeletons, the study
of early peoples in North America may suffer, while investigations of ancient
people in other parts of the world—including South America, where Luzia
(above) was found - will proceed apace.
But this case is much larger than Kennewick Man and the plaintiff scientists
who have asked to study him. Other old skeletons have been found and new
discoveries of old bones will occur. If Kennewick Man had been reburied without
study, and if other ancient skeletons and future discoveries follow him into
the ground, I'm afraid the field of American physical anthropology that studies
ancient populations will slowly die. New researchers, seeing only restricted
areas of investigation here, are likely to turn their attention to other
countries. In the future, then, we may learn a great deal about ancient
migration patterns and populations in South America, Asia, Africa, and Europe,
but North America may become a question mark—an unknowable area that leaves
a great gap in the total picture.
As a scientist, I care intensely about each of these issues. But personally,
the whole subject is much closer to my heart than that. I've lived my whole
life with a deep interest in the prehistoric peoples of North America. I want
their story to be told completely and accurately. Unless we study Kennewick
Man, the story of the native peoples, the story of America, and the story of
his people will forever be unclear and inaccurate.