Site hosted by Build your free website today!
Silencing the Dead: The Real Death of Kennewick Man
By Joseph Auriemma

                                                                                         In 1996, the 9300 year old Kennewick Man skeleton was found within Washington
                                                                                 in the United States. While his age implies that he is a Native American, his physical
                                                                                 features suggest that his origin may in fact be European. Federal legislation prevents
                                                                                 testing that could conclude the origin of Kennewick Man. This paper considers the
                                                                                 various implications that the remains of one ancient person can have upon the struggle
                                                                                 between cultural beliefs and the scientific quest for knowledge. The decision about
                                                                                 repatriating Kennewick Man or allowing him to be studied is examined from an ethical
                                                                                 perspective. It is debated whether Kennewick Man has more significance to scientists
                                                                                 and the general public or to Native Americans. Finally, claims to ownership are addressed,
                                                                                 and the agendas underlying each claim are summarized. Since the remains are highly
                                                                                 valuable to both groups, they must be tested so that proper ownership can be determined.

Table of Contents
Ethical Considerations

        While repatriation is a necessary tool in preventing the exploitation of people and their heritage, sometimes it goes too far. Kennewick Man was delivered to the Native Americans for repatriation before proper scientific testing and consequent conclusions were complete. Thus, he was silenced without the opportunity to reveal many mysteries about his past.
        Kennewick Man is the issue of heated debate between scientists who wish to study him and Native Americans who want his body repatriated and returned for burial. Both Kennewick Man and NAGPRA need to be defined before discussing this debate. Kennewick Man of a person found on the banks of the Columbia River in July of 1996. After an initial analysis, the skeleton was deemed a middle-aged male Caucasian. However, when the skeleton was then dated as being over 9300 years old, Kennewick, Washington quickly became the center of a long-standing debate. ( ) NAGPRA is the Native Americans Grave Repatriation Act passed by Congress on November 16, 1990. ( NAGPRA was implemented to protect Native American graves and to help defend Native American groups from any violation or exploitation of their rights especially by groups that are more powerful. It further asserts that ownership of any human remains found on federal or tribal lands after 1990 should be given to the closest lineal Native American descendants. If a lineal descendant cannot be found the remains will then be given to the group with the closest relation. If it is hard to ascertain any realistically close relationship or determine whether one can even be decided only then will the remains be turned over for either scientific interests or to museums for preserving. (
        The decision about whether to pursue scientific study or allow Kennewick Man to be returned is complicated and has many far-reaching implications. If Native Americans were determined to be one of a few groups to originally inhabit the Americas or a later group that invaded and conquered the indigenous people, a large part of history would be rewritten. One possible consequence of a rewritten American history is a reduction in funding and benefits for Native Americans. Not only would they no longer be the indigenous people of this continent, but they would have actually displaced some other group. ( Cultural implications also would be large, since a mystery about how much of the Native Americans' culture was their own and how much was adopted from an earlier group. If no testing is done then Native Americans will continue to be regarded as the original settlers of North America. Forbidding testing becomes a political avenue to maintain their aboriginal status. (
        Deciding to allow studies to be done carries added implications because it would set a precedent. This becomes more than just a struggle to protect one possible Native American ancestor because it could establish a guideline for how unearthed human remains will be handled in the future. ( In order to determine whether or not the remains are allowed to be subject to testing actually requires tests to be done on the remains. DNA testing needs to be conducted to establish whether these skeletal remains that possess Caucasian features must be repatriated or should be turned over to science. (Downey 2000, p. 43). Even if repatriation is carried out, DNA tests would need to be done to determine which of the several Native American groups with claims to Kennewick Man, if any, are justified in their request. (Downey 2000, p. 45). Not conducting tests on these remains because of Native American religious beliefs respects the culture of another group, but, it allows science to be thwarted by religion. (Downey 2000, p. 43).
        Debate intensifies because both scientists and Native Americans try to interpret gray areas in the wording of NAGPRA to suit their own benefits. They cannot reach any compromise though as it is simply a matter of testing the skeletal remains or leaving them alone and reburying them. Consequently, it is left to the justice system to try and resolve this unwavering stalemate. Of course, ethical concerns aside from just the legal ones about the rights of the Native Americans as a group, and the conduct of science and archaeology as disciplines play a major role as well.

Ethical Considerations
        Ethics play a major role in what should be done regarding Kennewick Man. The principles of archaeology are examined and determined to either be operating justly or violating the standards upon which the discipline is supposed to be based.
        Archaeologists are major proponents of educating the public and promoting cultural heritage. The fundamental principles of archaeology entail communicating interpretations of the past and making resources and information available to the public to enrich their knowledge and understanding. (Messenger 2000, pp. 111-112; However, it is imperative that archaeologists wait to present information to the public until they are relatively certain about their findings because failure to do so misleads the public and results in long-lasting erroneous beliefs. ( Archaeology aims to enrich understanding of cultural diversity and to aid the development of culture in general. (Wylie 2000, p. 139). Teaching about cultural heritage and developing a written history of the past are ethical responsibilities for archaeologists. (SAA 2000, p.11; Archaeologists are responsible for "designing and conducting projects that will add to our understanding of past cultures" and "committed to promote and support all legislature, regulatory, and voluntary programs that forbid and discourage all activities that result in the loss of scientific knowledge and of access to sites and artifacts". (Wylie 2000, p.141; Thus, not presenting the world with the truth about Kennewick Man infringes upon ethical responsibilities as it silences the truth.
        Archaeologists also are accountable to explaining to the groups with which they work why the research is important and offering them the opportunity to assist in the process as well as trying to ascertain their permission before any work has been conducted. They should also try to build a relationship with the group they are working with as they communicate what is entailed in the research. (Messenger 2000, p. 111; Archaeologists are guilty of breaking this ethical principle in the case of Kennewick Man. Native Americans were not first informed about the research before excavations had begun and were never asked to partake or to be included in the processes during the early stages. Native Americans were also not asked permission before the work was conducted on their ancestors as scientist simply sped ahead to examine the skeletal remains. (Downey 2000, p. 33) The research conducted is inconsiderate of the rights of Native Americans and discriminates against them by treating the sacred bones of their ancestors as nothing more than common fossils. (Yellowhorn 2000, pp. 130-131). While these violations should not be taken lightly, they should not be used as justification for keeping the truth about Kennewick Man hidden. Just because one type of mistake has been made in the past does not mean that another should be made in the future.
        Stewardship is the ethical principle that leads to the long-term conservation and protection of the materials that the archaeologists study. (Messenger 2000, p. 111). Archaeologists must contribute to the formation and preservation of the archaeological record as well as using it for the advantage of all people. (Wylie 2000, p. 153; In the case of Kennewick Man, archaeologists have certainly upheld this ethical principle as they try to conduct tests using as little of the remains as possible. The tests are conducted in order to enrich the archaeological record with the information that archaeologists ascertain through their studies. In fact, to disturb as little of the remains as possible, the left over fragments from the Carbon 14 test were used for the subsequent DNA testing. (Downey 2000, p. 29). Scientists and archaeologists held close to the principle of preservation as they gave care and attention to their study while using only what was necessary and nothing more. (SAA 2000, p. 12;
        Even when attempting to make decisions adhering strictly to the ethical code though, things often get complicated as the rights for a group in one area conflict with the rights for another group in a different area. Arguments ensue over which group is justified because the ethical codes are often kept very general. While all groups may agree with their basic principles, they are too broad to solve any real dilemmas. The very murky wording is open for a myriad of interpretations. (Zimmerman 1998, p. 77) Many people also argue that it is wrong to allow a set guideline of ethics determine a blanket course of action. They argue that an individual's judgments about what is right or wrong need to be taken into consideration in addition to what is written in some handbook. Every case is different and no one can rule over whose ethical standards are right and whose are wrong just because they have reached a previous consensus. (Goldstein 2000, p. 124)

        A major factor in the decision of whether Kennewick Man should be repatriated or subjected to studying by scientists rests in the benefit and significance of the skeletal remains relative to the Native American community versus to scientific research or to the general public.  It is important to consider the possible benefits that depend on the outcome of this case.
        The first question is how many people will benefit? Dr. JoAllyn Archambault stated in an affidavit to the Department of the Interior that, "Kennewick Man is part of the human past, and we have an obligation to preserve as much knowledge of the human past as we can. We owe this obligation not only to ourselves, but more importantly to future generations, both Indian and non Indian. They will judge us harshly if we needlessly allow part of their heritage to be lost." (, March 20001)
        Conflict between beliefs of Native Americans that the past should be left undisturbed and the goals of science to establish a documented record of the past through testing and analysis creates a dilemma. (Wylie 2000, p. 151). While the Native Americans state that they want Kennewick Man repatriated, scientists argue that the good of the general public and the truth about this continents history rests in the analysis of these skeletal remains.  Returning Kennewick Man to the American Indians would make a small group of people very happy but would deprive almost 5 billion others of learning a potentially important piece of information about the history of the world.
        Kennewick Man holds significance for Native American groups, science, and the historical record. How much cultural significance does Kennewick Man have to the Native Americans. This question is important because it has to be determined whether these ancient remains are an integral part of American Indians' beliefs and culture or just something they would prefer for others not to be disturbing.  "Native Americans believe that the dead remain connected to the living and to the physical remains they left behind… Disturbing such remains disturbs the moral fabric of the world with negative consequences". (Downey 2000, p. 37). Native Americans argue that preserving the skeletal remains is a spiritual matter and that they only are going through a legal avenue to secure their claim and provide a remedy to this situation. (Yellowhorn 2000, pp. 130-131). They believe that when a body is secured in its final resting place that it should be left for all of posterity and never disturbed or exhumed. It is not lost and thus not the property of whoever finds it but rather should be safe and protected by religious rights of the Native American groups. (Yellowhorn 2000, pp. 132-133). They further argue that since all of the native groups promote reburial, it should not matter to which specific group the bones belong before repatriation can take place.  Instead, an immediate reburial should occur so that the spirit can return to an undisturbed slumber. (Yellowhorn 2000, p. 133). Native Americans believe that the disturbance of anyone of their ancestors will have a severe negative impact on their world and thus knowing they could be descendants of Kennewick Man, it is very important to them culturally to see him be repatriated.
        The other side of the debate is how much allowing the study of Kennewick Man will enhance historical and cultural understanding if he is delivered into the hands of the scientists. Many scientists have given sworn affidavits in court that Kennewick Man is an irreplaceable piece of history and forbidding testing to be done to at least determine ownership is wrong and a serious detriment to the scientific field and public as a whole. (Downey 2000, p.49)  Scientists believe that the discovery of Kennewick Man has provided them with an invaluable chance to learn about the early North American population and consider the remains to be an extremely rare find of utmost importance to their research and discipline. (Downey 2000, p.49)

        To whom should Kennewick Man belong? The main defense for the claims of Native Americans is NAGPRA : "Remains are subject to NAGPRA if the remains were discovered or excavated from Federal or tribal lands after November 16, 1990 and if the remains are of a person of Native American ancestry. NAGPRA defines a person of Native American ancestry as of, or relating to, a tribe, people, or culture that is indigenous to the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii."
(  Kennewick Man was found on Federal land.  The link to Native Americans is less clear.  NAGPRA must clarify whether there needs to be a cultural as well as biological link when determining Native claims.  What to do if a link to more than one group or a group that differs from Native Americans or has died out but is still on their land exists is also a confusing situation. A more orderly process consisting of steps that can be carried out and implemented in a certain order must be established. (Downey 2000, p. 116-117) Scientists argue that any human remains over 400 or 500 years old cannot reasonably be linked to any one group through direct descent because of cultural and biological evolution. ( ) "Native American" as defined in NAGPRA may be limited by the word "indigenous".  By definition, the term indigenous excludes people and culture that came to the American continents from other places in the world. (
Congress did not mean for "indigenous" to put such severe restrictions on who is a "Native American". Instead "Native American" was implied by NAGPRA to mean all people and culture present in the United States before official European exploration of the Americas. ( The terms Native American and indigenous need to be better defined in order to deal with many of these issues.
        Since Kennewick Man was found in the United States and lived there from prior to 1492, NAGPRA states by definition that Kennewick Man is Native American.(  Following the guidelines set by NAGPRA any Viking remains from their many voyages to North America prior to Columbus' travels would be considered "Native American" and repatriated to modern tribes for reburial. ( ) Thus, the claims of repatriation can be extended too far.  This over extension can result in the wrong people having rights to handle other people's ancestors as their own.  Biological and cultural ties are not taken into consideration, but rather the remains are just automatically repatriated. ( NAGPRA is using time as its only guideline, and this point is fervently argued by scientists to be completely unreasonable. ( )
        Another question that must be addressed by NAGPRA is whether any time limit after which any remains become public property exists. As previously mentioned, most scientists agree that any skeleton as old as Kennewick Man is too old to be related to any modern tribe. ( With the lack of cultural and biological ties of skeletal remains several thousand years old, it is questionable whether any particular group of the world has any more right or relation to remains than any other. Based on the age of the skeleton, these arguments would imply that Kennewick Man should not be the sole property of any modern Native American group regardless of his lineage.
        Facial structures provide strong physical evidence that Kennewick Man is not a part of an early Native American group but instead part of a different pre modern European population. Powell and Rose did an in-depth comparative analysis of a variety of characteristics found in human populations throughout the world.  This analysis also measured details about the craniums of these modern populations and indicated that the remains of Kennewick Man are not very similar to any of them.  Although the shape of the cranium is similar to Northern Asian populations like the Ainu, it does not closely resemble that of any modern population. ( ) Dr. Chatters explains that a long pointed nose, well developed and flat mastoid processes, orbits that are circular rather than square, and a skull that passes the pencil test all signify that the skeleton of Kennewick Man is much more similar to a Caucasian than a Native American. (Downey 2000, p. 23) Dr. Chatters suspects that Kennewick Man was a male of European descent that died around the age of 50. ( He emphasizes that early American Indian skulls tend to have rounded skulls.  Also, with a diet that was high in fiber as well as sand that was often inadvertently mixed in with their meals, American Indian teeth tended to be worn down. This pattern contrasts with the European-like teeth and skull structure of Kennewick Man. ( It seems that modern Native Americans do not have a substantial claim for the ownership of Kennewick Man on the bases of these biological findings.
        Evidence for Native American ownership outside of the legal protection of NAGPRA is dubious and speculative at best. Even if the skull of Kennewick Man were determined to be Native American further studies would have to be conducted to determine to which modern tribe if any the remains should belong. ( Native Americans face a dilemma because in order to win their case and prove ownership they would have to allow scientific testing of Kennewick Man's remains.  In the process, they would be losing their fight.  The only way for Native Americans to win is to appeal to the current wording of NAGPRA or continue tying the arguments up in court until they win or are simply granted custody after a never ending stalemate. One interesting note is that an object resembling a spear point found in the side of Kennewick Man. The curious object appears to resemble spearheads used by early Native Americans. While the resemblance to a spearhead may imply that Kennewick Man was Native American, it also may mean that he was not a Native American and consequently was speared or it could simply be a coincidence that the rock imbedded in the hip region resembles a spearhead. (Downey 2000, p.117) Chatters and others that initially looked at the skeleton assert that Kennewick Man is a wanderer without lineal ancestors in this country.  Thus, he should not belong to any one group but rather to the American people". (Downey 2000, p. 116-117).
        The only real evidence pointing toward Kennewick Man being Native American is historical precedence because of the time period and geographical location. Thus, testing is also avoided because aside from his age and being found in the United States, most physical evidence suggests that Kennewick Man is not of Native American descent. In fact, so far scientific evidence suggests that no direct descendants of any early Americans are alive today.  However, without a clear answer from scientific testing to determine ownership of the Kennewick Man, Native Americans can still use the protection of NAGPRA to have a chance at having the remains repatriated to them.
        Several tribes conjointly possess the current rights to Kennewick Man. "Indian tribe claimants (including the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Indian Nation of the Yakama Reservation, the Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho, and the Wanapum Band) are now the legal custodians of the skeletal material and further scientific research by members of the public is up to them. (  More testing obviously needs to be done to at least determine which if any of these groups is the right group of people that Kennewick Man has been placed with.

        It is a difficult decision to determine whether the benefit of knowledge outweighs the significance of cultural meaning. The scientific argument is one of a quest for knowledge and desire to reveal the hidden mysteries of the world.  Science continually seeks to uncover the true story of what "really" happened. Scientists believe that an analysis of the bones of Kennewick Man can provide them with an invaluable piece of the puzzle in learning about early North American history. ( Some archaeologists have likened the reburial of human remains by Native American groups to book burning because all of the information and knowledge that could have been discovered by analyzing the remains may be lost forever. (Zimmerman 1998, p. 73) Some scientists assert that no one owns the past and so no groups should have any exclusive access or control to it. (Zimmerman 1998, p. 70)  While the record may be about Native Americans more specifically it is still about the world in general and that the past and archaeological materials are not private but rather the public domain. (Zimmerman 1998, p.76). Giving things back is not necessarily the right course of action because while you may be fulfilling the wishes of one particular group in some ways you are depriving the enrichment and rights of the rest of the world. (Goldstein 2000, p. 120)  They argue that the information gained through archaeological research is invaluable as it unveils the mysteries of the past and that without archaeology Native Americans would have been left without a past as well. (Zimmerman 1998, p. 77) The main argument in this particular case though is that most of the evidence based upon the physical structures suggests that the remains are not Native American and thus even though the bones may have been found upon Native American lands, the remains are not of their direct ancestors and so they should have no special right to them. ( ;
        The Native American argument is that their ancestors are not just an important part of their past but an important part of their present culture as well. They argue that no one would want the remains of their relatives exhumed and analyzed and not many people would want it done to them either. Non American Indian Scientists counter this remark by stating that the remains of Kennewick Man may indeed be more closely related to them then Native Americans and they still insist that he be studied and the data be analyzed. (Downey 2000, p.49) Native Americans do not want their ancestors disturbed as they serve an important part of their life because of their religious beliefs and believe that disturbing these remains infringes on their religious freedom. They liken the exhuming of their possible ancestors by others in the face of their religious beliefs in terms of insensitivity to going into a church during mass and ripping pages out of the Bible in front of the entire congregation. ( ) The American Indian groups believe that they were the only people here and thus that NAGPRA should be used to return the skeletal remains of any ancient skeleton found in the Americas to them. (  Native Americans religious beliefs state that when people take care of the land the land will take care of them. ( When remains are exhumed the promise to protect the land and all that is within it has been broken and thus the covenant the land had to take care of the people will be shattered as well. ( They do not want to see Kennewick Man studied but instead returned to his grave because even though he may not be one of their ancestors they do not want to take the chance and risk falling victim to adverse consequences as mentioned about their religious beliefs. Native Americans conclude their arguments by saying since the dead obviously cannot give their consent to be studied, spiritual ancestors should have the authority to make the decision. (Goldstein 2000, p.119)
        Studies already conducted on the skeletons should be analyzed by scientists to determine whether the skeleton is of Native American heritage or not and should not be kept from being analyzed. A court ruling on February 6th of 2001 found this to be true and ordered that all raw computer data of the analysis should be turned over for further investigation. ( Testing should be done to determine to which group Kennewick Man belongs. Whoever receives ownership should then have the right to decide whether Kennewick Man is analyzed or reburied. If the remains are Native American than scientists should respect their decisions. However, if the remains prove to not belong to any Native American group than they should be studied by scientists and used to adjust the history of the world.

…Another court case regarding Kennewick Man is currently scheduled for June 19th of 2001. (

Associated Press
        2000 Judge reactivates lawsuit, questions government definition of 'Native American'. Kennewick Man Virtual
        Interpretive Center presented by the Tri-City Herald. Web link at:

Astrau Folk Assembly
        1999 Kennewick Man Fact Sheet. Web link at:

Downey, Roger
        2000 Riddle of the Bones- Politics, Science, Race and the Story of Kennewick Man. Copernicus, New York.

Friends of America's Past
        2001 A nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting and advancing the rights of scientists and the public to learn about
        America's past. Web link at:

Goldstein, Lynne
        2000 The Potential for Future Relationships between Archaeologists and Native Americans. In Ethics in American
        Archaeology (Second Revised Edition), edited by Mark J. Lynott and Alison Wylie, pp. 118-125. The Society
        for American Archaeology, Washington D.C.

Hirst, K.Kris
        2001 Kennewick Man-- or how I learned to hate 60 minutes. Index Page web link at:

Lee, Mike
        1998 Ancient One belongs to land, tribal leader says. Kennewick Man Virtual Interpretive Center presented by the
        Tri-City Herald. Web link at:
        1998 Tribal view focus of Kennewick Man talk. Kennewick Man Virtual Interpretive Center presented by the
        Tri-City Herald. Web link at:
        1999 Recasting the Past: Day One. Politics of the past. Scientists, tribes still at odds over Kennewick Man bones.
        Kennewick Man Virtual Interpretive Center presented by the Tri-City Herald. Web link at:
        2000 Tribes criticize plan to test DNA of old bones. Kennewick Man Virtual Interpretive Center presented by the
        Tri-City Herald. Web link at:

McManamon, Francis P.
        1999 The Initial Scientific Examination, Description, and Analysis of the Kennewick Man Human Remains. Presented by
        the Archaeology and Ethnography Program. Web link at:

Messenger, Phyllis ; et. al.
        2000 Teaching Archaeology in the Twenty-First Century: Thoughts on Postgraduate Education/ Professional
        Development. In Ethics in American Archaeology (Second Revised Edition), edited by Mark J. Lynott and
        Alison Wylie, pp. 110-112. The Society for American Archaeology, Washington D.C.

Public Law 101-601—November 16, 1990
        1990 National Park Service and National Center for Cultural Resources present the Native American Graves
        Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Web link at:

Schafer, Dave
        1996 Skull likely early white settler. Kennewick Man Virtual Interpretive Center presented by the Tri-City Herald. Web
        link at:

Society for American Archaeology (SAA) Ethics in Archaeology Committee
        2000 Principles of Archaeological Ethics. In Ethics in American Archaeology (Second Revised Edition), edited by
        Mark J. Lynott and Alison Wylie, pp. 11-12. The Society for American Archaeology, Washington D.C.

Society of Professional Archeologists (SOPA)
        1997 SOPA home page. Web link at:

Wylie, Alison
        2000 Ethical Dilemmas in Archaeological Practice: Looting, Repatriation, Stewardship, and the (Trans)formation of
        Disciplinary Identity. In Ethics in American Archaeology (Second Revised Edition), edited by Mark J. Lynott and
        Alison Wylie, pp. 138-157. The Society for American Archaeology, Washington D.C.

Yellowhorn, Eldon
        2000 Indians, Archaeology, and the Changing World. In Ethics in American Archaeology (Second Revised Edition),
        edited by Mark J. Lynott and Alison Wylie, pp. 126-137. The Society for American Archaeology, Washington D.C.

Zimmerman, Lawrence
        1998 When Data Becomes People: Archaeological Ethics, Reburial, and the Past as Public Heritage. International
        Journal of Cultural Property 7: 69-86.