The Story of Kennewick Man

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Scientists who have studied the 8,500-year-old skeleton known as Kennewick Man have come to a number of conclusions about him. This sculpted bust, for example, is their interpretation of what he looked like. Credit: SutdioEIS
Scientists who have studied the 8,500-year-old skeleton known as Kennewick Man have come to a number of conclusions about him. This sculpted bust, for example, is their interpretation of what he looked like. Credit: SutdioEIS

Winter 2014: The Story of Kennewick Man By David Malakoff

On a warm July day in 1996, Will Thomas and Dave Deacy, two college kids, were watching some speedboat races on the Columbia River near Kennewick, Washington, when they came upon a startling sight: a human skull lying in the shallow water near the shore. Wanting to watch the races, they hid the skull in some bushes, and later reported their find to the local police.

Neither man had any inkling that they had just spotted one of the best-preserved ancient skeletons ever discovered in North America. Or that the roughly 8,500-year-old remains, dubbed Kennewick Man, would soon spur a historic legal confrontation, some bitter political wrangling, and an intense debate among scientists, government officials, and Native American tribes over who should control such ancient finds, and who gets to make that decision. Along the way, the decade-long saga would also include the mysterious disappearance of skeleton parts, allegations of government malfeasance, an FBI investigation, and a helicopter raining tons of rock on the riverbank.

“It’s an astonishing story when you look back on it all—almost unimaginable,” said one of the drama’s central players, forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

Now, Owsley and about 60 other scientists are telling the story in unprecedented detail. This past September, they published Kennewick Man: The Scientific Investigation of an Ancient American Skeleton (Texas A & M University Press), a richly illustrated, 700-page tome that documents Kennewick Man’s legal and scientific importance. In its 32 chapters, the researchers interpret the voluminous data collected from the skeleton and the site where it was discovered, and offer some surprising new insights into Kennewick Man’s origins, lifestyle, diet, and death. A former government official offers an insider’s perspective on some controversial bureaucratic decisions, and legal analysts break down the courtroom drama. And there are plenty of tables and charts on everything from the carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen isotopes found within the bones, to the algae and minerals that grew on them.

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