A long battle between science and spirituality has now ended, with spirituality the victor thanks to genetic testing which confirms that 9,000 year old human remains are indeed those of a Native American. The “Kennewick Man” was discovered by the banks of the Columbia River in Washington several years ago. Scientists were astonished by the discovery, since few human bones that old have ever been found in North America. The remains were also incredibly intact, meaning it was an incredibly important find for scientists studying the evolution of life in North America.
However, the “Ancient One,” as he is known to Native Americans, doesn’t belong to science. That’s because several tribes said they were connected to the man and that he should be reburied. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers studied the remains of the man and confirmed he is indeed related Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), such human remains must be returned for burial as close to the place they had been found as possible. The biggest question now is which tribe will have the right to bury him. Future testing may be able to determine which tribe most closely resembles the man. The five tribes are already collaborating on a burial agreement to expedite the reburial.
The remains of the Ancient One were discovered by accident in 1996 by college students who noticed a human skull in the river. Scientists had speculated that the man could be related to the Japanese or Polynesian peoples, possibly leading to confirmation that Homo sapiens had migrated from Africa to the Americas by way of a temporary ice and land bridge linking Siberia and Alaska. Although for many scientists, proving that Homo sapiens did in fact migrate is the Holy Grail, indigenous people have a different focus: proving that their ancestors were already living on the continent well before migration from any other place.
The genetic testing of the Ancient One does not confirm either theory. Future study, scientists point out, could help them figure out details about the man’s life that may shed light on the situation. Despite the scientific value of the find, Native Americans have a right to be suspicious of scientific endeavors involving their ancestors. In the 19th century, many museums acted as grave robbers, raiding fresh native graves, digging up corpses and even sending body parts back East for further study.
Archeologists and other researchers sued the U.S. government for access to the man after the Native Americans claimed the remains. They got a brief look at the bones, which yielded some fascinating results. The Ancient One may also be related to Asian seafarers who journeyed down the coast into Alaska. They also determined that the man spent much of his life with six broken ribs, which did not prevent him from spending copious amounts of time hurling something downward, probably a spear.
Although researchers are disappointed about their inability to obtain more information about the Ancient One, they have been brainstorming ways to be more inclusive and respectful of the humans they encounter at archaeological sites. They have already welcomed representatives of all five tribes into the lab, where they were able to pay their respects. Other scientists are involving Native Americans in the process early on, getting local opinions and working with the communities to handle remains in an appropriate manner.
They also note that the opinion of indigenous peoples is not monolithic and can change over time, with some people wanting to help the researchers and others preferring to see their ancestors given traditional burials. The ethical questions are not easy to resolve, but everyone agrees that it is important to find middle ground.