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Mystery of the First Americans

Owsley Doug Owsley
Claims for the Remains
Douglas W. Owsley
Division Head for Physical Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution

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 alternative.

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 regulations that 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 sued.

Kennewick man reconstruction Nothing in the NAGPRA regulations, Owsley says, prevents scientific study of early Americans such as Kennewick Man.

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.


Jamestown Owsley 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.

Luzia skull and reconstruction 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.



Does Race Exist? | Meet Kennewick Man
Claims for the Remains | The Dating Game | Resources
Transcript | Site Map | Mystery of the First Americans Home

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