For years, the Colville, Nez Perce, Umatilla, Wanapum and Yakama peoples told the world who the Ancient One is: an ancestor.
Let him return home, they said, as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers turned his remains over to the Burke Museum for storage. Let his relatives honor him and reinter him, they said, as courts allowed him to be handled and subjected to study. He is one of us, they said, even as a federal judge and scientists questioned his origin.
And in the end, the Ancient One’s descendants were proven right by the science employed by those who had wanted to prove the Ancient One—also known as Kennewick Man for the area where he was found—was perhaps related to other Pacific peoples, was part of another early human migration to the Americas.
On April 26, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ruled that the Ancient One is indeed Native American and most closely related to the people of the Colville Tribes. The ruling sets the stage for the return, under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, of the Ancient One’s remains to the place where his loved ones first interred him some 9,000 years ago.
Jackie Cook, repatriation specialist for the Colville Tribes, said the oral histories, beliefs and traditions of the Plateau peoples have been vindicated. “We know what we know and we believe it,” said Cook, whose mother was enrolled Colville. “There was never any doubt” about the Ancient One’s origins.
Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe, is an anthropologist and an Obama appointee to the U.S. Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. “This has taken a long time, longer than it ever should have,” he said. “It’s an example of the unfortunate and unnecessary clash between [indigenous] traditions and beliefs and the law of science… A series of events allowed individuals to pursue a narrow agenda.”
Meanwhile, a U.S. Senate committee heard testimony on April 28 on a bill that would require the Army Corps to return the Ancient One to his descendants. Sen. Patty Murray’s Bring the Ancient One Home Actis included as part of the larger Water Resources Development Act, which is being considered by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.
“This is about doing right by the descendants of the Ancient One, and I will keep fighting to move this bill forward and bring these remains home,” said Murray, D-Washington. The bill is co-sponsored by senators Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon; Ron Wyden, D-Oregon; and Michael Crapo, R-Idaho.
The Ancient One’s odyssey began on July 28, 1996, when two powerboat race spectators in Kennewick, Washington, found part of a human skull on the bottom of the Columbia River about 10 feet from shore. Later searches by authorities turned up a nearly complete male skeleton. Carbon dating determined the remains to be older than 9,000 years; subsequent research put the age at between 8,400–8,690 years old.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintained possession of the remains because they were found on federal land. In September that year, the Army Corps announced its intention to repatriate the remains. The following month, eight scientists filed a lawsuit to block the repatriation, challenging the determination that the remains could be identified as Native American simply because of age; the first forensic anthropologist to examine the remains had noted that the shape of the Ancient One’s skull appeared to be different than that of modern Native Americans, fueling old human origin and migration theories. The scientists also asserted that the study of the remains would provide scientific knowledge of benefit to all Americans. In February 1997, a U.S. District Court magistrate ruled that the Ancient One could not be defined as “Native American” under NAGPRA. The following month, the Army Corps rescinded its decision to repatriate the remains pending the outcome of an appeal.
On October 16, 1998, the remains were turned over to the Burke Museum for safekeeping and the Ancient One’s descendants visited him in the ensuing years.
On April 19, 2004, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the 1997 decision and scientific study of the remains was allowed to take place. There were studies of the Ancient One’s skull, measurements of his bones, and studies of his teeth. There was analysis of sediments associated with the remains. There were DNA tests. “Repeated handling and sampling the bones… caused some damage to the Kennewick Man remains,” according to the Burke Museum.
On June 18, 2015, Dr. Eske Willerslev, director of GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, released new findings based on advanced DNA testing and analysis, including comparison to DNA found in saliva samples provided by two Colville participants. Willerslev confirmed that the Ancient One is Native American and has a direct link to Columbia Basin Indigenous Peoples. The Army Corps contracted for an independent validation of the genetic evidence; the independent validation concurred that the Ancient One’s DNA sequence sample is “genetically closer to modern Native Americans than to any other population worldwide.”
Because of the findings, the Ancient One is now subject to the processes and procedures outlined in NAGPRA. In other words, he’s on his way home.
“My decision regarding this determination has been an important one to make and is based on the best available evidence,” Brig. Gen. Scott A. Spellmon reported on April 28. “I am confident that our review and analysis of new skeletal, statistical, and genetic evidence have convincingly led to a Native American determination.”
“Kennewick Man’s skeleton exhibits traits that can reasonably be considered Native American.”
“Kennewick Man’s cranium fits within the affinity patterns seen in individual Native American crania.”
“Genetic evidence establishes that Kennewick Man is more closely related to modem Native Americans, including the Colville, than to any other group.”
Earlier studies used information that “has been shown not be to be a reliable indicator of ancestry.”
Colville Chairman Jim Boyd said on the Burke Museum website: “Most of the [Plateau Tribes] want the same thing. Collectively, we want repatriation and reburial. We know who we are and we know that the Ancient One—Kennewick Man—is our ancestor.
“It was a long process for us to decide to submit DNA. We talked to our elders, we talked to our council. There were many discussions because of the way science has treated our people in the past. It was a tough decision. We are happy for the outcome. The outcome is good. But we knew what the outcome was going to be. It’s that simple to us.
“When we talk about him, we talk about all of us. That’s what we are talking about. We are him, he is us. When we look at science, we look at what is handed down through our history. Our people have known who was here for generations and generations and generations. They’ve passed this down and they know who weren’t here. That is why we were certain we knew what the findings were going to be …
“We as Native people are skeptical about science, because even science can be political. We look at it from a spiritual standpoint and we look at it from a traditional standpoint. This is about respect.”
Yakama Nation Vice Chairman Delano Saluskin issued this statement regarding the Army Corps’ decision:
“The Yakama Nation is pleased the Army Corps of Engineers has determined the Ancient One is Native American, a fact we have been stating for 20 years. Now that the Ancient One has been scientifically determined to be Native American, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) applies and the process to repatriate can begin. The Yakama Nation, as one of the claimant tribes, looks forward to working with the Army Corps of Engineers through the regulatory process of NAGPRA.
“The Yakama Nation understands there is still a lot of work to be done to repatriate our elder, however, we see the announcement by the Army Corps of Engineers as an accomplishment in the journey to return our Ancient One home.”
A Description of the Ancient One:
The Ancient One was male and walked on when he was between 45 and 50 years of age. He was approximately 5 feet 9 inches tall. He was well-muscled and “engaged in rigorous activity” employing his arms. He ate mostly seafood. At the time, the now heavily-engineered Columbia River flowed freely and would have been teeming with salmon, eels, sea lions and seals.
When he was a teenager, he suffered two broken right ribs, which did not heal together properly but would not have caused him any disability or pain. Possibly at the same age, he also suffered a fracture of the right arm between the shoulder and the elbow. This healed well and would have caused no disability.
“Many years before death and probably when he was a teenager (and at the same time as the other trauma), an accident or conflict occurred, which resulted in a projectile point being embedded” in the right side of his pelvis. “Recovery from this wound was complete; there was no infection of the bone, and there was no disability associated with this injury.”
Just before he passed away, he sustained an injury to the forehead. He was interred shortly after his passing.