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Can A Skeleton Heal Rift Between Native Americans, Scientists?

Genetic analysis of a skeleton known as Kennewick Man may point to era of greater cooperation.

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DNA provided by members of the Colville tribe in Washington State helped demonstrate that Kennewick Man was Native American. The iconic 8,500-year-old skeleton has been at the center of a long legal battle.


Mistrust and rancor often mark relations between Native Americans and scientists who study the arrival and spread of the first humans into the New World. Researchers eager for data on the distant past can rankle tribes that demand respect for the bones of potential ancestors. But after almost a quarter century of accusations and legal battles, there are signs of a thaw in relations that could benefit both sides.

The most dramatic example of this surprising rapprochement was the publication last month of a genetic study of an 8,500-year-old man called Oyt.pa.ma.na.tit.tite—the Ancient One—by Native Americans and Kennewick Man by scientists. The skeleton has been at the center of a bitter 19-year fight over whether to analyze the bones or rebury them.

Thanks to DNA provided by members of the Colville tribe, who live in proximity to the discovery site along the Columbia River in Washington State, the study revealed the Ancient One’s genetic heritage was Native American. He could even be a tribal ancestor. (Read more about the latest analysis of Kennewick Man.)

The cooperation is a sign that respect for Native American traditions can go hand in hand with scientific enquiry, say many familiar with the dispute.

“We consulted with our elders in the tribal council and decided it was OK to do this,” says Jim Boyd, chairman of the Colville tribe. “Over the years we’ve gained a better understanding of the scientific viewpoint.”

The agreement between the tribe and the team led by University of Copenhagen evolutionary biologist Eske Willerslev marked a shift in the frequently tense relationship between researchers and native peoples.

“Everything between these two groups has been problematic,” says Kim TallBear, a member of South Dakota’s Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribe and an anthropologist at the University of Texas at Austin. “This marks progress,” she says of the agreement.

Debate: To Study or Rebury

Kennewick Man is one of a tiny number of early American skeletons. Found in 1996 on federal land near the town of Kennewick, Washington, his bones quickly created a fierce tug of war. Scientists urged extensive analysis, while local tribes demanded reburial. The debate tested a law Congress passed in 1990 designed to give Native Americans a chance to reclaim their ancient dead as well as sacred objects.

More than 180,000 artifacts and human bones reside in U.S. museum and university collections controlled by or funded by the federal government. Those include 4,000 heads taken from cemeteries and battlefields of the 19th-century West and now stored in Washington D.C.’s Army Medical Museum.

For anthropologists, such materials provide important study collections, and tribes had little recourse to recover the materials. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act set up a complex process whereby tribal peoples can seek to reclaim both bones and objects from federal lands and federally funded institutions—if they can show the material is “culturally affiliated.”

Watch: The skeleton of a teenage girl who lived during the last ice age has been determined to be the oldest most complete human skeleton ever discovered in the New World.

When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which controlled the Kennewick remains, announced they would return the bones to local tribes, eight prominent scientists, including Douglas Owsley of the Smithsonian Institution, successfully sued the government to stop the transfer. A federal appeals court ordered the Corps to hand over the remains for study.

In a research blitz in 2005 and 2006, a team of two dozen scientists closely examined and analyzed 300 bits of bone. They determined the Ancient One was short, muscular, and stocky, repeatedly threw heavy spears, and suffered a half dozen broken ribs and an injury from a sharp spear point.

His bones also revealed a childhood diet dominated by seafood and glacial melt water, suggesting he was a traveler from afar. But the government forbade some tests that involved extensive sample destruction, such as tooth analysis.

That work was done against the wishes of local tribes. Willerslev’s group, by contrast, spent time explaining their goals and methods, and brought tribe members to Copenhagen for lab visits in hopes of winning their trust.

Only one of the five regional tribes agreed to provide DNA. But the results contradict the theory suggested by Owsley’s team, based on skull measurements, that Kennewick Man may have been related to distant Polynesians or indigenous Japanese inhabitants called Ainu.

Dennis Stanford, a Smithsonian anthropologist who is part of Owsley’s group, downplays the study’s findings. “It’s more grist for the mill,” he says. And geneticists warn that while the results clearly show a Native American origin, they don’t necessarily connect Kennewick Man directly to the Colville tribe. Plus, genetics don’t necessarily prove cultural affiliation; other factors like linguistics, archaeology, and oral history must be taken into account, according to NAGPRA.

What’s Next for Kennewick Man?

Washington Governor Jay Inslee and several northwest tribes are demanding immediate repatriation of the Kennewick bones, but Stanford said he hopes that at least some material can be set aside for future analysis—and he doesn't rule out legal action to ensure this.

“We don’t want to drag this out,” says Gail Celmer, an archaeologist with the Corps, who says that a decision on the skeleton’s fate should come in months rather than years. The decision will take into account the DNA evidence, as well as the other factors spelled out in the legislation.

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A reconstruction of Kennewick Man’s face is based on his skull and forensic analysis of the nearly complete skeleton. Scientists went to court to prevent the remains from being claimed by local tribes and reburied.


“There has been a lot technological change in the past 25 years, but that doesn’t alter the lines of evidence laid out in the law,” says Melanie O’Brien, head of the National Park Service office that oversees the legislation. In the meantime, the bones will remain at Seattle’s Burke Museum.

Signs of Positive Change?

Whatever the outcome in the Kennewick case, a younger generation of scientists who came of age after the law passed is more aware of Native American concerns. Ripan Mahli, for example, is a 42-year-old geneticist at the University of Illinois who did some of the original analysis on the Ancient One as a graduate student. As the controversy unfolded, he began talking with Native Americans.

“The impact of colonialism hit me, and the legacy that researchers left behind,” he recalls. He helped organize a summer internship for Native Americans in genomics that offers hands-on training. “Getting indigenous community members involved in this research contributes to change,” he adds. “And more of my colleagues have partnerships with Native Americans communities that are respectful.”        

Chip Colwell, an anthropologist at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science who has worked closely with tribes, agrees that there is reason to hope that antagonism between the communities is lessening. “We ignored their values, traditions, and perspectives for more than a century,” he says. “The fact that the Colville tribe agreed to cooperate bodes well for the future.”

The long history of antipathy won’t dissipate quickly, however. In 2010, the University of Arizona returned blood samples and paid $700,000 to the state’s Havasupai tribe for misuse of their DNA, after lengthy and contentious court proceedings. “There is still a trust issue, and legal action is still a possibility for both sides,” says the Colville’s Boyd.

Suzan Harjo, a long-time Native American activist who helped draft NAGPRA, adds “the people calling the tune are still the same ones who oppose repatriation.” She warns that sharing some DNA does not mean a new era in collaboration has dawned.

“It’s going to take a lot more than just this result to make up for that more recent past,” agrees Ann Kakaliouras, an anthropologist at Whittier College. She predicts that scientists “who truly partner with native people will be welcomed by many native communities, and scientists who treat native people as simply research subjects might have a harder time of it.”

Adds Connie Mulligan, a University of Florida anthropologist: “There has to something in it for them or it's not a true collaboration.”

But the signs seem good that the two groups won’t remain forever at odds. “There is no new model yet,” says TallBear. “But we are in new territory.”

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