Kennewick Man: America's Stonehenge!

The following article has been quoted by the Lonely Planet Guide to the Pacific Northwest:

Southeastern Washington's most controversial public figure is an anonymous dead guy believed to be over 9300 years old.

It all started in the summer of 1996, when two college students found a nearly complete skeleton on the banks of the Columbia River near Kennewick. The county coroner examined he skeleton, and then called a forensic anthropologist to help determine if this was a murder victim or the remains of an ancient Indian, in which case the bones would e turned over to local tribes for "repatriation", or burial on tribal lands.

However, when anthropologist James Chatters examined the skeleton (skull pictured above), he made some astonishing discoveries. The skeleton was that of a Caucasian male, between 40 and 45 years of age, who stood about 5 feet 9 inches. Most startling, when Chatters was cleaning the pelvis structure, he noticed a gray object embedded in the bone. Further examination revealed the object to be a stone projectile point, of a sort usually associated with Archaic Indian period about 9000 years ago. If the man whose skeleton was found along the Columbia River was Caucasian, what was he doing in Western North America at a time when, according to most historical sources, the American Indians had just arrived via the Bering land bridge from Asia? Subsequent radio carbon dating fixed the Skeleton at an age between 9300 and 9600 years.

Just who was the Kennewick Man? Almost immediately, the story of an ancient European skeleton wounded by a primitive spear point found its way into the press. As the skeleton was discovered on federal land supervised by the US Army Corps of Engineers, this government agency immediately ordered Chatters to stop his investigation and sent a representative to collect the bones; the Corps then declared that the skeleton would be returned to a local tribe. Under the terms of the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA, 1990) any Native American remains found on public land had to be returned to local tribes. The Umatilla Indians, leading a
coalition of Columbia Basin tribes, formally claimed the bones under the act, vowing that they would bury the skeleton.

Upset at the prospect of loosing a chance to study this rare discovery - which wasn't, they objected covered by the NAGPRA because the remains were not of an American Indian - eight anthropologists initiated a lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers in hopes of stalling the re-burial and of preserving the skeleton for further study. Eight other groups, including the Asatru Folk Assembly, a northern California-based religious group with beliefs in ancient Norse gods, came forward a few months later to stake their own claims to the skeleton.

The federal court issued a restraining order against the Army Corps of Engineers and Kennewick Man was safely locked in a wooden box inside a vault, away from public view - or so it was thought. Miffed by news that Native Americans had been allowed to perform religious rituals over the skeleton, Asatru leaders threatened a discrimination lawsuit if they weren't allowed to perform their own ceremonies. The Corps of Engineers politely relented and 10 members of the group, clad in Viking garb, traveled over to the Tri-Cities to drink fruit juice out of their cow horn cups, as the traditional toast of mead. (Traditional toasts were prohibited by the Corps anti-alcohol rules).

The Kennewick skeleton is of vast interest to scientists, Native Americans and the general public for many reasons. If the skeleton proves to be Caucasian, the presence of Europeans in North America nearly 10000 years ago utterly upsets the standard theory of migration to North America. Perhaps,
when the ancestors of today's Native American tribes arrived across the Bering straits they encountered a pre-existing stone age culture made up of Europeans. Perhaps this was an unrelated Caucasian race from southeast Asia?

What will they do with the skeleton? its identity will first need to be established. In early 1998 the department of he Interior ruled in favor of further scientific study to determine whether the remains are that of a Native American. However the bones are currently locked up in Richland, where they await the action of the courts.

Above: The face of Kennewick Man, as reconstructed by scientists.