The Dangers of Kennewick Man’s DNA

Dr. Chip Colwell is curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and the author of the forthcoming Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America’s Treasures (University of Chicago Press). Follow him on Twitter @drchipcolwell

An article in Nature recently overturned our understanding of Kennewick Man, the controversial 9,300-year-old set of remains previously described as “the most important human skeleton ever found in North America.” The study of Kennewick Man’s DNA presents both opportunities and new challenges to archaeologists and Native Americans.

Kennewick Man was the subject of a nine-year legal battle between the government, archaeologists, and a coalition of five tribes from the Pacific Northwest. Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act–a 1990 federal law that establishes a process for tribes to claim ancestral remains and objects–the U.S. government had determined that the remains should be returned to the tribes. In 2004, the ninth circuit court of appeals ruled that the skeleton was not subject to NAGPRA in large part because, under the law, the remains were not “Native American.” This legal conclusion seemed to be supported by studies of Kennewick Man’s skeletal morphology, which suggested he was most closely related to Indigenous peoples in Polynesia and Japan.

Only now DNA analysis proves that Kennewick Man is an ancestor of today’s Native Americans. This discovery affirms what the Umatilla, Yakima, Nez Perce, Wanapum, and Colville tribes have said for nearly 20 years. (the Ancient One), their name for the man, is their progenitor. The geneticists even found that one of the most closely related tribes to the Ancient One includes the Colville, situated just 200 miles from where the skeleton was found.

This latest twist is a spectacular convergence of two ways of understanding the past. In this —> Read More