TCS Daily

Invasion of the Kennewick Men

By Jackson Kuhl - February 24, 2004 12:00 AM

After almost eight years of labyrinthine litigation the case of Kennewick Man has ended with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and archaeological science is the winner -- for now.

In a February 4 decision, the Ninth upheld the district court ruling stating that since no relationship could be established between modern American Indians and Kennewick Man -- physically, contextually, or otherwise -- he is not a Native American as defined under NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, thus NAGPRA isn't applicable. The Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) therefore applies and the bones can once again be studied by anthropologists. The tribes, who argue that any and all pre-Columbian remains are Native American regardless if the individual's tribe or culture still exists in modern times, are sure to appeal.

Kennewick Man is the mostly complete skeleton found in 1996 in Kennewick, Washington, by two college students wading up the Columbia River to watch a series of hydroplane races. Analysis of his size -- he stood about 5 ft. 10 in. in life -- build, skull shape, and other characteristics differentiated him from known Native American populations. Radio-carbon testing revealed he had died between 8,340 and 9,200 years ago (Kennewick Man is an old-timer but not the oldest found in the Americas; that honor currently belongs to an Idaho skeleton, dated to 10,600 years ago).

All of this intrigued anthropologists curious to uncover how the Americas were peopled, whether it had been by members of a single culture and ethnicity, perhaps even arriving in successive waves; or if the New World had been settled by different populations entering at different times. If the latter is true, perhaps Kennewick Man is a representative of one of these other groups.

But examination of the bones ceased when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who manage the federal land where they were found, sided with four Native American tribes who demanded that as one of their own, "the Ancient One" must be reburied under NAGPRA -- legislation intended to repatriate thousands of Native American remains held in museums and prevent fresh spoliation by archaeologists accustomed to using Indian graveyards as dissertation Wal-Marts. The Corps yoinked the bones away from the anthropologists and prepared to turn Kennewick Man over for reburial. The anthros sued and the case landed in the courts.

Kennewick Man is a seminal case, not just for what the bones themselves can tell us about human arrival in the Americas but primarily for its post-NAGPRA implications. More Kennewick Men are bound to surface in the coming years.

Jumping Off a Land Bridge

Everybody who has watched more than 30 minutes of the Discovery Channel knows the prevailing story of how the Americas were populated: sometime during the sunset years of the Wisconsin glaciation, Paleo-Indians emigrated from Asia across the Bering Land Bridge connecting Siberia and Alaska, traveling through a passage between the Laurentide Ice Sheet to the east and the Cordilleran Glacier to the west.

But there are a couple of problems with this theory. First, modern mapping and analysis have shown that there was little incentive to keep on truckin' the "ice-free corridor" -- the terrain was rough, treeless, windy, and at times blocked by the ice sheets themselves, which indeed apparently merged at some spots. So any settlers to the New World traveling an inland route probably came after 13,000 BC, when the glaciers composing the Laurentide Ice Sheet were in rapid retreat; they weren't entering an ice-free corridor so much as an ice-free ballroom. The earliest habitation sites in Alaska, dating from 11,700 BC, bear this out.

Yet an even older site is Monte Verde. Lying in a modern peat bog in southern Chile, Monte Verde is a settlement where bone and wooden artifacts have been consistently radio-carbon dated to between 11,800 and 12,000 BC. There are other sites that make claims to the earliest occupancy (most notably Meadowcroft Rock Shelter in Pennsylvania) but so far only Monte Verde has withstood scrutiny. So is it possible folks power-walked from Asia to the ends of South America, through severe terrain, within a millennium of the Laurentide's recession?

One If by Land, Two If by Sea

Archaeologists have long assumed that these early immigrant cultures were terrestrially based since no evidence of canoes or other maritime artifacts has ever been uncovered in association with them. But that's a big assumption based on a gaping hole in the record; after all, it's doubtful anyone's going to find kayaks and harpoons in the Great Plains, where most Paleo-Indian sites are best understood. Even many of the "coastal" sites excavated in modern times were far inland at the end of the last glaciation when water locked in ice sheets lowered sea levels by as much as 330 ft.

Perhaps instead of traveling inland, humans entered the New World along the coast of the Bering Land Bridge and down North America's western shore. Perhaps these populations exploited sea mammals along the way, and maybe -- maybe -- they utilized canoes or other small watercraft that would allow them to skirt areas where glaciers ran into the sea, blocking land access. If so, then questions regarding an ice-free corridor become moot. Questions about entry into the Americas prior to 13,000 BC become more interesting.

The only reason the possibility of coastal migration has been ignored is because any relevant evidence is along the ancient shoreline, now underwater. Recently, though, advances have allowed underwater archaeology programs at schools like Texas A&M, Florida State University, and SUNY-Stony Brook to expand beyond shipwrecks and tackle prehistoric archaeology in Davy Jones's locker. "Advances" as in "cash advances," since the programs' development has had more to do with supplying staff and students with scuba gear than with technological updates. Many of the same techniques applied to terrestrial archaeology -- mapping and surveying with compass and tape measure, opening square test units or rectangular trenches -- are also used 20,000 leagues under the sea.

No earth-shattering finds have resulted from any of these investigations, but the recovery of projectile points, flakes, and other evidence of stone technology has borne out the underlying supposition that ancient Americans were active along the now-submerged continental shelves. So it's only a matter of time before somebody pulls a skeleton out of the drink. And somebody else will want to rebury it.

Such a discovery would neither prove nor disprove either migration theory, and in fact the coastal-migration theory may not pan out altogether. Yet it will certainly add grist to the mill, particularly if a date can somehow be extracted from it. In preparation for those future Kennewick Men, it's a good thing we're setting the legal precedents now.

Jackson Kuhl writes about archeology, travel, and culture. He recently wrote for TCS about historic preservation.


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