Frequently Asked Questions

Background

In July 1996, the nearly complete, male skeletal remains of Kennewick Man, sometimes referred to as “The Ancient One,” were inadvertently discovered by two men on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ land at the McNary Dam Project near Kennewick, Wash. Kennewick Man is one of the oldest and most complete skeletons discovered in North America. The recovery of the remains, and subsequent analyses, led to a controversial debate over who controls the human remains among the federal government, Native American Tribes, and scientists.

Following the 2015 publication of new DNA information based on Dr. Eske Willerslev and his team’s research, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began to re-examine the status of Kennewick Man to determine whether this substantial new evidence meant that the remains are Native American under NAGPRA. Additionally, the Corps contracted for an independent validation of the genetic evidence underlying the June 2015 results. The Corps received this report in April 2016, which concurred in the finding that the Kennewick Man’s DNA sequence sample is genetically closer to modern Native Americans than to any other population worldwide.

1. When will you be returning the remains to the tribes?

At present, there has been no decision to transfer the remains because the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGRRA) process has not produced such a result. The Corps is following the process outlined in NAGPRA, which could lead to a disposition to a Native American Tribe in the future.

2. Because the Corps has determined Kennewick Man to be Native American, what are the next steps?

A Federal agency must first determine that human remains are Native American for the NAGPRA to apply. The second step is to establish priority of custody, which requires cultural affiliation to a tribe. Cultural affiliation must be established through several separate lines of evidence which includes the recent DNA findings. A finding of cultural affiliation is a different process than a Native American determination and must be supported by a preponderance of the evidence. The Corps is currently compiling information to determine if a preponderance of the evidence is present to establish cultural affiliation with a Native American Tribe that has submitted a claim under NAGPRA. If a cultural affiliation is made, then the remains may be transferred to a tribe. If not, the remains are considered “unclaimed.” NAGPRA includes procedures to address the disposition of unclaimed remains, which would be followed by the Corps if a cultural affiliation cannot be established. During the NAGPRA process, the Kennewick Man remains will continue to be curated at the Burke Museum.

3. What does “priority of custody” mean?

Priority of Custody is a four-step process to establish right of ownership to NAGPRA items. Federal agencies must first determine if there is a lineal descendant. If there is no known lineal descendant, the second priority is to the Indian tribe from whose land the remains were recovered. If the NAGPRA items were not recovered from Indian land, the next priority is to the culturally affiliated Indian tribe. If the Corps cannot determine a tribe with cultural affiliation, the fourth priority is to the Indian tribe from whose aboriginal land the remains were recovered, as defined by final judgments of the Indian Claim Commission (ICC). Kennewick Man has no known lineal descendants and was not found on Indian land or ICC aboriginal land. Therefore, the Corps is pursuing research to determine if there is a tribe with cultural affiliation.

4. What do you need to do to reach a cultural affiliation determination?

To establish cultural affiliation under NAGPRA, nine different lines of evidence (Geographical, Kinship, Biological, Archeological, Anthropology, Linguistic, Folklore, Oral Tradition, and Historical Evidence) must be considered. Furthermore, there must be a preponderance of the evidence that there is a "relationship of shared group identity which can be reasonably traced” between a present day Indian tribe and an identifiable earlier group to which Kennewick Man would have belonged.

5. Dr. Owsley’s research determined that Kennewick Man was not Native American. Was his research considered in your determination?

Yes, Dr. Owsley’s findings were considered, including the newest information in the volume he and Dr. Jantz edited and was published in 2014.

6. Why did the Corps determine Kennewick Man to be Native American now?

The recent results provided by skeletal analyses of Kennewick Man and other Paleoindians, along with the aDNA analysis prompted the Corps to review the evidence for Kennewick Man’s Native American ancestry. This new evidence supports the following:

  • Kennewick Man’s cranium fits within the affinity patterns for individual Native Americans.
  • Kennewick Man’s skeleton exhibits traits that can reasonably be considered Native American.
  • Genetic evidence establishes that Kennewick Man is genetically related to modern Native North Americans, including the Colville. Biocultural influences on morphology over 8,000 years affect the differences seen between all Paleoindian crania and modern Native American groups.
  • Biocultural influences on morphology over 8,000 years affect the differences seen between all Paleoindian crania and modern Native American groups.

7. What took so long for the Corps make a determination of Native American?

The new evidence used by the Corps has been published within the last two years – with the significant DNA results finalized less than a year ago. The Corps contracted for an independent review of the DNA findings and the verification of the DNA results, and the results were received in April 2016.

8. Who verified the DNA results for the Corps?

Dr. John Novembre, Computational Biologist, Associate Professor, Department of Human Genetics, University of Chicago.

9. Why is the Corps “anti-science” and is not allowing further research of the remains?

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is a scientific and engineering organization. Under the Federal curation regulations, it is the government’s responsibility to protect and preserve the research potential of the remains for the future. It is important that care be taken to ensure that no unnecessary damage is done to the remains, given their fragility. Even a minimal amount of handling is damaging; therefore, it is important to balance the research potential and the harm done during research. This is to help ensure that the remains are available for future study, when technology may be improved, methods refined, and results of previous research can be challenged. In the case of the Kennewick Man remains, the plaintiff scientists completed their research in 2006, but results were not published until 2014. The Corps has reviewed all requests for access to the remains, including for scientific research.