The remains of the Kennewick Man, unearthed in 1996 and dating back to approximately 9,000 years ago are the source of a dispute that lingers through decades.
In 1996, a fortuitous stumble upon the remains of a man along the Columbia River – Kennewick, Washington brought about one of the most well preserved skeleton that dating back to 9,000 years.
It is this skeleton, titled Kennewick Man that lies at the heart of a political and scientific controversy.
Of course, the remains have been studied over the years since its discovery, but the science was limited in determining which population the Kennewick man might have belonged to. Based on the shape as well as the size of the skeleton, it was initially thought that he could have well belonged to either European, Asian or Native American Population. Therefore, an open end for possibilities which was interpreted by some as the political opportunity to claim the remains.
Now, as technology advanced, a fragment of the 300 bone fragments was subjected to genome analysis and revealed that the Kennewick Man is in fact closer to Native American populations than to any other population group previously speculated.
The DNA analysis did not go as far as linking the remains to a specific modern day Native American tribe, yet more fuel was added to the fire over who will be the caretaker of the Kennewick Man.
Eske Willerslev, co-author on the study published in the journal Nature and geneticists from the University of Copenhagen, stated :
“We will never be able to say what population, what individual in the Americas, is most closely related to [Kennewick Man] simply because most Native Americans haven’t been sequenced. What we can say is that Kennewick Man is more closely related to some Native American groups than others.”
At their discovery the 300 bone fragments making up the Kennewick man were on federal land. So the responsibility for the skeleton fell upon the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It was the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that was pressured by five Native American tribes in the area of Kennewick Rivers to return the skeleton under the regulations of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act or NAGPRA.
The new discovery related to the remains might dwindle the efforts of the modern Native American tribes. Under genome sequencing, the connection with Native American tribes is evident, just not with modern groups.
Against this background, NAGPRA has no effect on returning the Kennewick man as he does not specifically belong to a modern Native American tribe, just generally to the Native American population.
For the scientific community looking to study the remains in depth, this is good news. Returning the remains and their consequent traditional burial would make the Kennewick man disappear forever.
Doug Owsley, Smithsonian anthropologist commented that:
“It was always about being able to ask questions”.
To this extent, the fact that for now the Kennewick man remains in the good care of scientists will allow more insight in the process of peopling of the Americas, his own origins as scientific and technological means are progressing.
The Kennewick man is so much more valuable as ancient human remains that could provide answers to all the questions that are boggling scientists are extremely rare. Thus far, one cave in Mexico and a site in the Montana plains are the only locations that provided some clues, albeit significant ones.
After a multitude of analyses, including one that reconstructed what the Kennewick man would have looked like in his lifetimes based on his skull’s morphology, sample sequencing narrowed down the possibilities.
To date, a few of the modern Native American tribes have submitted genetic samples to determine if the Kennewick man might be one of their own.
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