Bones of Contention

Free Kennewick Man!


An August decision by a federal magistrate in Oregon means a victory for scientific research over tribal identity politics.

Since 1996 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has kept the approximately 9,300-year-old remains of a man found in Kennewick, Washington—popularly known as "Kennewick Man"—under wraps. Scientists who have glimpsed the 350 bones and fragments say he represents an intriguing archeological mystery, since his skull shape suggests he isn't a direct ancestor of Native Americans.

But a coalition of Indian tribes claimed ownership of the bones under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The Army Corps and the Department of the Interior under Secretary Bruce Babbitt agreed the bones should be under tribal control, meaning no sacrilegious scientific poking.

The Army Corps allowed the tribes to hold ceremonies over the bones, including burning wood near them, which may have damaged what was a relatively pristine archeological find. A couple of femurs also went missing for years and then showed up in a local sheriff's evidence locker. The Army Corps showed further signs of trying to stymie research by dumping dirt and rocks on the site where Kennewick Man was found.

A group of scientists who want to study the bones sued, and U.S. Magistrate John Jelderks decided in their favor. He said the government had no proof there was any connection between Kennewick Man and modern tribes, given the lack of cultural materials near the site and the skeleton's structural differences from modern Native Americans.

Further study of Kennewick Man could provide insight into the ongoing controversy over whether the original inhabitants of America all walked over the Bering Strait from north Asia, as traditionally thought, or were instead the product of multiple migrations from many areas.