The Army Corps of Engineers has determined that Kennewick Man is a Native American and will move forward with a process that could allow Northwest tribes to claim his ancient bones.
The decision announced Wednesday is the first step in applying the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act to the 8,400-year-old skeleton found 20 years ago along the Columbia River in Kennewick.
The second step is to determine a cultural affiliation to a tribe to establish the right of a particular tribe or coalition of tribes to claim the bones, likely for reburial.
Brig. Gen. Scott Spellman of the Corps said his decision that Kennewick Man is Native American was based on the best evidence available.
Never miss a local story.
“I am confident that our review and analysis of new skeletal, statistical and genetic evidence have convincingly led to a Native American determination,” he said, in a statement.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., also has been working to turn Kennewick Man over to Northwest tribes. They refer to him as the Ancient One.
I am confident that our review and analysis of new skeletal, statistical and genetic evidence have convincingly led to a Native American determination.
Brig. Gen. Scott Spellman of the Corps
The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works has planned a hearing Thursday on a larger bill, the Water Resources Development Act, which includes Murray’s legislation. Her bill would require the bones not only to be returned to Native Americans, but specifically to Columbia Basin tribes.
In June new genetic evidence from the scientific study of Kennewick Man’s bones was released that showed the remains were more similar to modern Native Americans than any other living group. Advances in science had made the analysis of highly damaged and fragmented DNA possible after failed earlier attempts.
The DNA had been compared to the Confederated Tribes of the Colville reservation, which are closely associated with other Columbia Basin tribes, including the Yakamas, the Umatillas, the Wanapums and the Nez Perce.
Northwest tribes immediately called for the bones to be turned over to them for burial after the DNA results were released. A federal judge had allowed the scientific study of the bones after questions had been raised about whether Kennewick Man could be linked to Northwest tribes.
The Corps responded to the DNA analysis by the University of Copenhagen in Denmark by commissioning an independent evaluation of the results, which was led by John Novembre, a computational biologist at the University of Chicago.
The Kennewick Man skeleton remains in Corps custody, stored at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Novembre’s analysis agreed that the DNA results “all point to the Native American ancestry of the sample.”
In addition, Kennewick Man’s skeleton exhibits traits that can be reasonably considered Native American, and the skull fits within the range of shapes found in individual Native Americans, the Corps said.
Spellman met with Columbia Basin tribes Tuesday to tell them of the determination. The tribes next will need to submit a claim for cultural affiliation.
The Corps will consider whether there is a shared group identity that can be reasonably traced between a present day tribe and an earlier group to which Kennewick Man would have belonged.
It will consider geographical, kinship, biological, archaeological, anthropology, linguistic, folklore, oral tradition and historical evident.
Until any decision is made, Kennewick Man will remain at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington in Seattle.