9,000-year-old man yields secrets of America’s earliest inhabitants By Dan Springer

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Kennewick Man may have more secrets to spill, according to top anthropologists. (Smithsonian)


Eighteen years after his near-complete skeletal remains were found along the bank of the Columbia River in eastern Washington, Kennewick Man is finally telling his 9,000-year-old story — and reshaping our knowledge of how North America was first populated by humans.

The prehistoric man’s bones have yielded clues about his diet and lineage, convincing forensic anthropologist Doug Owsley of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History that he was an immigrant who had come a long way before his death. Based on his diet of seals and other marine mammals and the shape of his skull, the theory is he and his relatives traveled in boats from Polynesia, along the coasts of Japan, Russia, Alaska, Canada and eventually up the Columbia River.

The dramatic scientific discovery almost didn’t happen because of the federal government. The Army Corps of Engineers tried to give the bones to local tribes for re-burial before they could be studied, but a lawsuit filed by several scientists blocked the transfer. The Corps did manage to prevent any further finds around where the bones were discovered, dumping 2 million pounds of dirt and planting several thousand trees on top of Kennewick Man’s burial site.

U.S. Magistrate Judge John Jelderks, who heard the scientists’ case, wrote in his opinion the Army Corps of Engineers had ‘prejudged the outcome’ in the interest of fostering a climate of cooperation with the tribesStill, the Army Corp of Engineers is defending its effort to hand the bones over to the tribes.

Jelderks, and later the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, disagreed with the government and demanded the Army Corps of Engineers allow the bones to be studied. Owsley ran tests on Kennewick Man over a 16-day period.

The Umatilla Tribe continues to fight.

“We maintain, and nothing has been published to date to refute, that the Ancient One is one of our ancestors,” the tribe wrote in a statement.

Anthropologists say the tribes are just trying to flex political muscle and the Corps capitulated.

“That law is supposed to be a compromise between the scientists and Native Americans, not just a one-sided law that hands everything over,” said James Chatters, the first forensic anthropologist to study Kennewick Man.

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