How DNA Analysis Ended Scientific Disputes in the Case of the Kennewick Man
Back in 1996, two young men stumbled across a human skull submerged in the Columbian River, situated in Kennewick, Washington. Now known as the Kennewick Man, this remarkable discovery swiftly captured the attention of the archaeological community and sparked a storm of controversy, particularly in the United States.
The skull's distinctive features prompted a multitude of theories regarding his identity, ranging from Native American to Polynesian, European and even Ainu from Japan. Nonetheless, in 2015/6 the persistent mystery surrounding the Kennewick Man’s identity was definitively resolved through groundbreaking DNA analysis, unveiling the long-awaited truth.
Kennewick Man was found along the Columbian River in Kennewick, Washington. (Bobjgalindo / CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Enduring Significance of the Kennewick Man
Following the discovery of the Kennewick Man’s skull, archaeologists successfully retrieved and collected 350 additional bones and fragments, which were then dated to sometime between 8,000 and 9,500 years old. Examinations conducted on the human remains established that they belonged to a male individual in the later stages of middle age. Meanwhile, the Kennewick Man has been consistently described as a tall individual with a slender physique.
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One of the oldest and most complete skeletons ever found in North America, the significance of the Kennewick Man didn’t end there. During analysis of the skeleton, archaeologist James Chatters was surprised to discover that his anatomical features were quite different from those of modern Native Americans.
Notably, the distinctive characteristics of the Kennewick Man, such as his long and narrow face, prominent chin and tall stature, are unlike the remains of other Paleo-Indians. In fact, the facial measurements most closely resemble the Ainu people of Japan, thus making naming the skeleton’s origin difficult.
To provide context, the Ainu, a Caucasian minority, were once the predominant inhabitants of the Japanese Islands. Additionally, a closely related population to the Ainu once thrived in Polynesia, and it is noteworthy that several light-skinned Polynesians, particularly those from the ruling class, share facial features akin to the renowned Kennewick Man. These observations led to obfuscation of the origin of Kennewick Man.
Forensic anthropologist arranging the remains of the Kennewick Man. (Chip Clark / Smithsonian Institution)
Science Vs Native Americans in Kennewick Man Legal Disputes
Extensive radiocarbon dating and DNA testing could have resolved some of these uncertainties. However, attempts to research the remains in depth were curtailed by more than a decade of legal disputes between scientists, the American government and five different Native American tribes who claim Kennewick Man – which they called “the Ancient One” – as one of their ancestors.
In 2004, a group of anthropologists sued the United States government for the right to conduct tests on the skeletons. It was ruled that a cultural link between any of the Native American tribes and the Kennewick Man was not genetically justified, allowing scientific study of the remains to continue. The Kennewick Man was stored out of sight at the Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle, although the human remains were left available for scientific analysis.
As a result, anthropologist Joseph Powell of the University of New Mexico examined the remains which were analyzed using craniometric data, including those drawn from Asian and North American populations.
Powell concluded what Chatters had initially claimed, that the Kennewick Man was not European but most resembled the Ainu and Polynesians. Powell said that dental analysis showed the skull had a 94 per cent chance of being a member of a Sundadont group like the Ainu and Polynesians.
In 2005, a 10-day examination of the skeleton led by forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley further confirmed that the skull's features resemble those of the Ainu and suggested that the man's ancestors may have retreated from advancing people from Central Asia and travelled by boat over generations along the coast northward and east to North America.
An Ainu man from Japan. Scientists claimed that the Kennewick Man was closer in appearance to the Ainu of Japan or the Polynesians. (National Museum of Denmark / No known copyright restrictions)
New Research Rekindled Debate on Kennewick Man's Origins
However, a study published in the journal Nature in 2015 questioned previous conclusions in relation to the origins of the Kennewick Man. The research involved a DNA analysis conducted on a sample taken from Kennewick Man’s hand bone, which was then compared to the DNA of modern-day Native Americans, Ainu people and Polynesians.
Through a comprehensive reanalysis of the skull, the team arrived at a significant conclusion; since the remains belonged to just one individual, they could comfortably fall within the range of variation that could have been observed among ancestral Native American populations.
Turning previous conclusions related to the Kennewick Man on their head, the results showed that the DNA of Kennewick Man was most similar to that of modern-day Native Americans. “There's no getting around it, Kennewick Man is Native American,” co-author David Meltzer, an anthropologist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, told Live Science.
Forensic anthropologists Douglas Owsley and Kari Bruwelheide examining the skeletal remains of the Kennewick Man. (Chip Clark / Smithsonian Institution)
Coming Home: The Final Chapter for the Kennewick Man
The genetic investigations conducted on the Kennewick Man remains have also been used by scientists to try to piece together the story of the peopling of the Americas. According to a Live Science article published in June 2015:
“Willerslev and his colleagues analyzed the DNA from a 12,600-year-old skeleton, known as the Anzick boy, unearthed in Montana. That DNA revealed the first Americans split into two groups before the Anzick boy lived. One lineage migrated southward to populate Central and South America, while another branch headed north along the northwest coast of North America and into Canada. The new data suggest Kennewick Man's group formed a third offshoot that diverged from the southern lineage, but migrated back north. This lineage includes modern Native Americans such as the Colville and some other Pacific Northwest tribes.”
“The controversy has been painful for lots of people; tribal members and scientists as well,” explained Dennis O’Rourke, a biological anthropologist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. “I think the results will add weight to repatriation claims because now claims of ancestry can at least to some degree be clarified,” he says.
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Thanks to DNA analysis revealing the true identity of the Kennewick Man, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began the process of returning the human remains to Native American Columbia River tribes for burial under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). In December 2016, President Obama signed legislation which gave clear directions to the Corps requiring the skeleton be turned over to a coalition of five claimant tribes within 90 days.
After being housed at the University of Washington Burke Museum in Seattle from 1998 to 2017, the Kennewick man was repatriated. After years in scientific limbo, his remains were finally buried and put to rest in the presence of Native American members of five Columbia Plateau tribes. “We always knew the Ancient One to be Indian,” stressed Aaron Ashley of the Cultural Resource Committee in The Spokesman-Review. “We have oral stories that tell of our history on this land, and we knew, at the moment of his discovery, that he was our relation.”
Top image: Clay facial reconstruction of the Kennewick Man was created based on the morphological features of his skull. Source: Brittney Tatchell / Smithsonian Institution
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Akpan, N. 18 June 2015. “Geneticists crack the 20-year mystery of the Kennewick Man skeleton” in PBS News Hour. Available at: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/geneticists-crack-kennewick-man-mystery
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Preston, D. September 2014. “The Kennewick Man Finally Freed to Share His Secrets” in Smithsonian Magazine. Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/kennewick-man-finally-freed-share-his-secrets-180952462/
Raja, T. 5 May 2016. “A Long, Complicated Battle Over 9,000-Year-Old Bones Is Finally Over” in NPR. Available at: https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2016/05/05/476631934/a-long-complicated-battle-over-9-000-year-old-bones-is-finally-over