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Case building to link ancient Kennewick Man to modern tribes

A plastic casting was made of the skull from the bones known as Kennewick Man, found in 1996 along the Columbia River.
A plastic casting was made of the skull from the bones known as Kennewick Man, found in 1996 along the Columbia River. Associated Press file

A case is being built that ancient Kennewick Man was not a lone traveler, wandering the Columbia Plateau amongst people who looked little like him.

He had similarities with two other ancient individuals whose bones were found not far away.

Human remains labeled CWU DO, found within about 20 miles of Kennewick Man, and bones found in a 1960s excavation by the Mid-Columbia Archaeological Society a few miles from where Kennewick Man was found, may help provide legal proof he was related to Native American peoples in the region.

Both are believed to have lived about the same time as Kennewick Man — 8,000 to 6,500 years ago, part of the Early Cascade era in the region’s history.

Those working to link Kennewick Man through the years to present-day Native Americans, so the tribes can claim bones now in the custody of the federal government, are looking for evidence he belonged to an “identifiable earlier group” to meet requirements of the Native American Graves Repatriation Act.

“We think this comprises an identifiable earlier group,” said Lordes Henebry-DeLeon, the program director at Central Washington University for the graves repatriation act.

“There is more than one person who looks like Kennewick Man in his neighborhood at the same time,” she said. “This is his immediate group.”

She spoke last week at Archaeology Days at the Wanapum Heritage Center, an event of the Wanapum band and the Grant PUD.

All three sets of ancient remains had long, narrow skulls, and the skull measurements showed similarities, Henebry-DeLeon said.

That contradicts earlier findings that Kennewick Man’s skull must have made him look very different, she said. But those earlier studies compared him with a database that included no one from the Columbia Plateau, she said. When coastal people were added to the database, they also did not match.

“His neighbors were not in there,” she said.

Closely related

When the 8,400-year-old bones of Kennewick Man were discovered on the banks of the Columbia River 20 years ago, area tribes immediately claimed him as a relative. They demanded that the bones of the one they called the Ancient One be turned over to them for reburial.

But a federal judge, swayed by an analysis of the shape of Kennewick Man’s skull, determined that the skeleton was not Native American and allowed scientists to study the bones. Full ancient skeletons, like that of Kennewick Man, are rare.

Now the tribes are getting another chance to claim the Ancient One after the scientists who conducted the first study of the skeleton’s DNA concluded in 2015 that Kennewick Man was more closely related to contemporary Native Americans, including those of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, than any other living population.

The finding contradicted other studies that suggested he had traveled to what is now the Tri-Cities from a northern coastal region and had similarities to ancient coastal people of Asia, rather than Native Americans.

With new DNA evidence, regional tribes have two possible legal paths to claim the bones for repatriation.

The U.S. House and Senate have passed legislation requiring that the bones be turned over to a coalition of regional tribes for reburial.

The legislation is in conference committee and time is running out to get it to the president’s desk to be signed into law, said attorney Joe Sexton, who represents the Yakamas and spoke at Archaeology Days.

If the legislation is not signed, tribes can still obtain the Ancient One by working through the legal process outlined in the graves repatriation act.

They already have passed the first hurdle, with a determination by the Army Corps of Engineers — the bones were found on Corps land — that the DNA evidence correctly determined Kennewick Man is Native American.

Gathering the evidence

To claim the bones, the tribes also must show a cultural affiliation with the Ancient One.

The legal standard is a preponderance of evidence. A decision is required to be based on the information that is available, even if it is limited, Henebry-DeLeon said.

Other evidence, in addition to Kennewick Man’s skull shape, is being developed to show he was similar to other Columbia Plateau people of his era, she said.

An isotopic analysis of his bones showed similarities with CWU DO, she said. Stable isotopes can show what type of plants people ate and can differ depending on what type of protein they ate, such as marine animals like seals versus game like deer.

The isotope similarities indicate the the Ancient One and CWU DO lived in the same geographic area, she said.

The two sets of bones, plus the bones unearthed by the Mid-Columbia Archaeological Society, all were buried in graves.

Early Cascade projectile points were found embedded in both the Ancient One and the bones discovered by the local archaeological society. Kennewick Man had a spear point in his hip.

Evidence also must be developed to trace the group identity that included Kennewick Man through time to present-day tribes, for the tribes to claim the bones.

That’s being done in part with the Marmes Rockshelter, a geological formation submerged when the Lower Monumental Dam was built on the Snake River. It contained burials from as long as 10,000 years ago to more recent times.

A more recent example of a long, narrow skull was found at Marmes. It is believed to be Late Cascade, dating from about 6,500 to 4,500 years ago.

The DNA study results released last year also are key to linking the Ancient One to the coalition seeking repatriation, which includes the Wanapum, Yakamas, Umatillas, Colville and Nez Perce.

Advances in DNA technology

The study, done at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and others in a global team, was possible because of technological advances in the last 20 years, said Ripan Malhi, one of the scientists who worked on the study and speaker at Archaeology Days. He is an associate professor at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Illinois.

“A lot of what we can do today we could not even imagine in 1996,” Malhi said.

Initial efforts by three laboratories to extract usable DNA to sequence a small section of Kennewick Man’s DNA failed, he said.

The 2015 results showed that Kennewick Man’s closest genetic affinity was to current-day Native Americans, particularly to the Colvilles and to multiple South American groups.

Little DNA data was available to compare with North American tribes and many samples were available from South America, contributing to the results.

When another test, called a direct ancestry test, was done, it showed Kennewick Man to be more similar to the Colvilles than the South American groups, Malhi said.

Finding a perfect DNA match with the Colvilles is unlikely because of DNA changes since European contact, he said.

The Colvilles volunteered for the study, but the other tribes claiming the Ancient One as an ancestor have intermarried with each other for as far back as anyone can remember.

Burial site already chosen

The Corps is expected to make a decision on Kennewick Man’s cultural affiliation in February, according to speakers at Archaeology Days, unless the legislation pending in Congress becomes law and makes the decision unnecessary.

“The Yakama and other Columbia Plateau tribes have always believed the Ancient One is a Native American and that position has not changed at all,” said Kate Valdez, tribal historic preservation officer for the Yakima Nation.

“Just like anyone else, we want to bury our grandfather or grandmother,” she said.

The Yakamas have found it disturbing and disrespectful that the knowledge of its elders was doubted, she said. DNA confirmation that he was Native American came as no surprise.

Every year, Native American religious leaders hold a ceremony at the University of Washington. where the Ancient One’s bones are held, so he knows he is not forgotten, she said.

The tribes will not give up until he comes home, she said. A burial site, which will not be publicly disclosed, already has been chosen.

“That’s how confident we are,” she said.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews

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