After nearly a decade of debate, DNA tests confirm the 8,500-year-old skeleton found in Kennewick, Washington to be closely-related to Native Americans from the Northwest coast.
From Discovery to Disarray: Kennewick Man’s Mysterious Origins
When first discovered near the Columbia River in 1996, the skeleton caused much disarray in the scientific community as anthropologists, researchers, and reporters came up with varying theories and reports of the man’s origins.
Upon the coroner’s first inspection, the skeleton, dubbed Kennewick Man or The Ancient One, was believed to be of European descent until bone analysis concluded he was at least 8,000 years old. After the analysis, speculations arose of his real origins. When reporters covered his mysterious story, they misidentified him as being of Caucasian-descent as they were unfamiliar with “Caucasoid,” the term researchers were using in reference to him.
Contested Origins and a Complicated Court Case about Kennewick Man
Though reporters may have led some astray with their error, there was still much debate among the scientific community surrounding the ancient man. Some researchers thought he was of Polynesian or Japanese descent and at least five Native American tribes claimed to have descended from Kennewick Man.
Matters were further complicated by a court case between the federal government and several of the Native American tribes against the scientific researchers interested in understanding his origins. His possible Native American descendants argued for his proper ritual burial, while the science scholars believed the research to be paramount in understanding human migration. After the lengthy court case, the judge ruled in favor of science as the skeleton’s origins had not been conclusively founded as Native American.
Anthropologists Reconstruct Kennewick Man’s Life
As researchers worked to trace Kennewick Man’s genome through DNA analysis, a group of physical anthropologists worked to recreate his life. Their findings indicated he was between 35 to 45 years old and he stood around 5’7” tall (170 cm). He was predominately right-handed and due to injuries his skeleton revealed, he was most likely involved in hard labor.
Anthropologists linked him to a coastal area as chemical analysis of his bones revealed a diet of fish. The size and shape of his skull also linked him to a coastal area, one believed to link him to the Polynesians or Ainu. However, with advanced methods of DNA extraction, these theories would be put to rest soon.
DNA Evidence Proves Kennewick Man More Closely-related to Native Americans
On June 18, a new study, undertaken by Eske Willerslev, was published that compared DNA found in a sliver of bone in Kennewick Man’s hand to different human populations’ DNA. The findings confirmed Kennewick Man’s origins as more closely-related to the Native Americans rather than then Polynesian or Ainu peoples.
The study also re-examined the skull and found it was within a normal range of variation to be related to Native American populations. The theory of his origins along the Northwest coast held true.
The team found the closest genetic match to be the Colville tribe, one of the original tribes claiming Kennewick Man. Although they are the closest relatives known, scientists have pointed out that the study had a limited sample size of Native American DNA. While other tribes may be more closely-related, the Colville tribe have embraced The Ancient One as one of their own.
The Impact of Kennewick Man’s Origins and His Future
With the new DNA findings along with several other skeletal analyses performed over the last few years, anthropologists are able to see a bigger picture of human migration in the Americas.
One lineage of people migrated to Central and South America. Another lineage headed into the northwest coast of North America towards Canada. Kennewick Man and the nomadic group to which he belonged would become a third branch that followed the south line before diverting north to live and travel around different areas of the Columbia River.
Though the findings have brought The Ancient One to his Colville relatives, Kennewick Man’s journey isn’t completely over yet as this new evidence must be taken into consideration before his final resting place is decided. For now, he will remain at the Burke Museum in Washington.