Skull and reconstruction of Kennewick Man

The battle for Kennewick Man

One of the oldest humans found in North America, 9,000-year-old hunter's existence was suppressed by First Nations and the U.S. Army

VICTORIA – My Christmas reading included a fascinating new book called Kennewick Man, a study of skeletal remains discovered in 1996 on the bank of the Columbia River in eastern Washington.

He was an ancient hunter buried by human hands just south of B.C. almost 9,000 years ago, in the Early Holocene period following the last Ice Age. Among the oldest humans found along the West Coast of North America, he sparked an unprecedented battle by the Smithsonian Institution to examine the skeleton and publish the book late last year.

The most controversial evidence came from the skull. It doesn’t match the classic Mongoloid profile of modern aboriginal people, key to the theory that the earliest humans reached North America by land bridge from Siberia to Alaska as glaciers receded.

Smithsonian scientists confirmed initial reports that Kennewick Man is a closer match with early Polynesians, and the Ainu people who remain in Japan today. He lived until about age 40, surviving for years with a stone spear point stuck in his hip.

The authors conclude from chemical analysis that “Kennewick Man could not have been a long-time resident of the area where he was found, but instead lived most of his adult life somewhere along the Northwest and North Pacific coast where marine mammals were readily available.”

This suggests migration by sea, perhaps from a great distance.

The U.S. Army seized the skeleton. The scientists sued and eventually won the right to a brief examination. The court case exposed brutal and illegal actions of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and federal departments to destroy the site and intimidate the scientists.

U.S. law demanded all remains from before European settlement be repatriated for burial by local tribes, without examination.

Umatilla tribe spokesman Armand Minthorn wrote in 1996: “We view this practice as desecration of the body and a violation of our most deeply-held religious beliefs.

“From our oral histories, we know that our people have been part of this land since the beginning of time. We do not believe that our people migrated here from another continent, as the scientists do.”

The head of the Society for American Archaeology tried to get the researchers to drop their lawsuit, fearing it would interfere with fragile relationships with area tribes.

The U.S. Justice Department warned the Smithsonian that lead scientist Douglas Owsley and others might be in criminal conflict of interest as federal employees suing the government. Even the White House weighed in against them.

Meanwhile the skeleton was mishandled and later stored in substandard conditions at a Seattle museum, where it remains today. Parts of both femurs were lost, and scientists were falsely accused of taking them. They had been removed by tribal representatives and secretly buried.

Kennewick Man was found as the army was in tense negotiations with tribes on salmon fishing rights on the Columbia, their demand for removal of dams, and the $100 billion cleanup of the Hanford nuclear site.

The scientists finally won their case in 2004, with a ruling that the skeleton is so old there isn’t enough evidence to show it is related to the current tribes. The judge found the army repeatedly misled the court, and assessed the government $2.4 million in costs.

The U.S. Army still controls the skeleton and denies requests for further study. The spear point, for example, could show the location where he was injured.

One final irony. Analysis shows Kennewick Man ate mostly salmon in his later years, around 6300 BCE. These are the salmon runs wiped out by dams built by U.S. Army engineers before the signing of the Columbia River Treaty with B.C.

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Follow on Twitter: @tomfletcherbc

[Smithsonian magazine account here]

Just Posted

Court action in Trail acid spills may take years

B.C. court case involves a number of defendants and a number of plaintiffs

City of Castlegar asking for input on the 2020 budget

Residents can fill out an online survey or attend public meetings.

Castlegar drivers lead the pack at Northport Speedway

Darren Dudley and Curtis Konkin were the champions in their class at the Northport Speedway

Officer shot, man arrested after standoff near Argenta

The officer suffered non-life threatening injuries

Cops make fentanyl bust in Castlegar

Over 280 pills among drugs seized

Election 2019: Connie Denesiuk – Liberal Party candidate for South Okanagan – West Kootenay

Connie Denesiuk is running for the Liberal Party in the South Okanagan – West Kootenay riding

B.C. massage therapist reprimanded, fined for exposing patients’ breasts

Registered massage therapist admits professional misconduct

B.C. boosts legal aid funding in new payment contract

‘Duty counsel’ service restored in some communities, David Eby says

Rugby Canada helps recovery efforts in Japan after typhoon cancels final match

Canadian players wanted to “give back in whatever small way they could”

Cheating husband sues mistress for gifted ring after wife learns about affair

The husband gave his mistress $1,000 to buy herself a ring in December 2017

British couple vacationing in Vancouver detained in US after ‘accidentally’ crossing border

Parents travelling with three-month-old reportedly being held in Pennsylvania

After losing two baby boys, B.C. parents hope to cut through the taboo of infant death

Oct. 15 is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day in B.C.

Alberta to join B.C.’s class-action lawsuit against opioid manufacturers, distributors

B.C. government claims opioids were falsely marketed as less addictive than other pain meds

VIDEO: Trudeau, Singh posture for ‘progressive’ votes while Scheer fights in Quebec

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, whose party has been on the rise in recent polls, is campaigning in Toronto

Most Read