The Kennewick Man Case

      The Question of “Race”

      Migration and Stone Tool Technology

      Re-Writing Colonization




Since the colonization of the Americas, there has been a desire to historically connect the “Old World” with the “New World.” Intellectuals and Academics have built names and careers for themselves by connecting the two worlds; at the same time these individuals reinforce the ideologies of colonization and racial hierarchy. If we look at the Kennewick Man situation, we can see that this practice is still strong in the institutions of “Knowledge.”

When European explorers (expansionists) first came to the Americas, they could not explain where the American Indians came from. At the time, their explanation of the world was Biblical. Europeans explained “racial” difference by the three sons of Noah. These three sons explained Europeans, Asians and Africans. Racial hierarchy was justified because Japheth, who was the most righteous, was the patriarch of the Europeans; Shem gave birth to the Asians, and Ham was the source of the Africans. But were did American Indians fit in? Diego Duran, in 1580, decided that the Indians were the Lost Tribe of Israel. This idea was reinforced by Rabbi Manasseh ben Israel in 1650. He wrote the book The Hope of Israel which was highly read. “In it, the practices, ceremonies, beliefs, stories, and even languages of individual groups of Indians were identified as being Jewish in origin.” (Feder, 1999:86)

The connection to the “Old World”, more often then not, was to place Europeans in the Americas before American Indians; thus giving more credence to the colonization of the Americas and the genocide of its peoples. The best example of this is the myth of the Moundbuilders. Colonial Intellectuals believed that the great mounds were built by a vanished race because, as J.D. Baldwin wrote in his 1872 book Ancient America, “[I]t is absurd to suppose a relationship or connection between the original barbarism of these Indians and the civilization of the mound-builders.” (as cited in Feder, 1999:137) The most popular explanation was that a “vanished race” had created a peaceful and magnificent civilization back in antiquity. Although the explanation of their geographic origins does differ, the most popular and supported Diaspora was ancient European in root. These peaceful people were overtaken and eliminated by an invasion of wild, violent, and barbaric people. These new violent people were the ancestors of American Indians (this is a theme we revisit with Kennewick Man.)

The Kennewick Man Case

In July of 1996, a skeleton was discovered on the banks of the Columbian River in Kennewick, Washington which is under the management of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE). James Chatters, the forensic anthropologist was called to examine the body, and he claimed the skeleton was Caucasoid and “probably an old settler”; the skeleton also had an ancient projectile point imbedded in its hip. Early C14 analysis of the bones shows them to be approximately 9,000 years old; this makes the remains one of oldest and most complete set of human remains in the Americas. In September of 1996, a confederation of five local tribes, headed by the Umatilla, requested the remains returned to them for reburial under The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), and the COE agreed to return the remains for reburial.

In October of 1996, eight scientists sued the COE and the Department of Interior (DOI); Bonnichsen et al. v. United States of America demanding that the bones be allowed to be studied. Their case was based on very racialized language arguing that the remains could not be biologically or culturally affiliated with any modern Indian tribe (the requirements of NAGPRA). Chatters had publicly stated that the skull was “Caucasoid”; later in the press he would describe the facial reconstruction of Kennewick Man and his discovery of his facial features: “I turned on the TV, and there was Patrick Stewart — Captain Picard, of ‘Star Trek’ — and I said, ‘My God, there he is! Kennewick Man’” (Preston, 1997:73) Shortly after Bonnichsen et al. v. United States of America was filed, Asatru Folk Assembly filed suit claiming the remains were their ancestor because he was “Caucasian.” The Asatru Folk Assembly is a religious group from Northern California who trace their beliefs to pre-Christian tribes of Scandinavia and Germany; one of their main spokesmen is Louis Beams an ex-Texas Klan leaders and the spokesperson for US Third Position (a neo-nazi front group). In November of 1997, U.S. Rep. Richard Hastings introduced a bill to amend (gut) NAGPRA which would retroactively allow the study of the Kennewick Man remains.

In 1998, DOI takes over the remains of Kennewick Man from the COE (who had just buried the excavation site for “erosion protection.”) The DOI drafts a plan to allow the study of Kennewick Man. Two months later Federal Judge Jelderks orders Kennewick Man moved to Burke Museum in Seattle. In early 1999, a federal team of five scientists begin studying Kennewick Man. In October of that year, the Federal report claimed Kennewick Man may be linked to Asian peoples and not the tribes claiming the remains. The Federal team claim that DNA tests must be done to determine “race.” The tribes opposed the DNA tests on both religious grounds and on the basis that “race” is a social construct (the anthropological community as well as most of the scientific community has come out stating “race” is not biologically determined.) Under NAGPRA, biological affiliation is not necessary; a tribes only needs to prove cultural affiliation in which geography is an important factor.

In January of 2000, official results of radiocarbon dating confirmed Kennewick Man to be approximately 9,400 years old. In March, DNA samples were taken; this was against the objections of both the tribes and experts who claimed the samples were too compromised to yield results. The tests were completed in August, and the results made public in September; the results showed nothing because the samples were too compromised. At this point, the DOI announced that the remains were culturally affiliated with the five tribes on the basis of oral tradition and geography, and repatriation will follow. The Court ruled that the DOI decision was not the end of the dispute, and they are evaluating the merits of this determination along with the scientists’ claims. During an October 2000 status conference, Judge Jelderks attacked definitions of “Native American” and “Indigenous Peoples” which was again very racialized. A new trial and public hearing started on July 19, 2001. The case has not yet been settled.

The Question of “Race”

The Kennewick Man and Spirit Cave Cases are the most important NAGPRA cases up to now, but I find the racialized theories and language in both cases more important. The case of Kennewick Man needs to be resolved immediately with the remains returned to the Umatilla, and the Spirit Cave Mummy case needs to be re-opened and the remains returned to the Shoeshone. With that said, the remainder of this paper will focus on the racialized discourse and theories of Academia and the public’s reaction to these discourse. I will also look at the implications of this discourse on the larger narrative of colonization in the Americas.

The discourse regarding Kennewick Man was racialized from the beginning when James Chatters pronounced the skull “Caucasoid.” It is no surprise that this language caught the attention of the American Press when put in the historical context of the American people’s desire to connect the “Old World” with the “New World.” It is also no surprise that prominent anthropologists working on controversial theories regarding the populating of the Americas would capitalize on this racialized discourse to hurl their theories into the public discourse as well as gain support by politicians. There is now a growing group of Academics who believe that “[t]here is evidence that those mysterious first Americans were a Caucasoid people. They may have come from Europe and may be connected to the Clovis people of America.” (Preston, 1997:74) Although masked in a “politically correct” veil, racial discourse has changed little in regards to the populating of the Americas since 1580.

Douglas Owsley, who is the Division Head for Physical Anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, and a plaintiff in the Kennewick Man case, told The New Yorker in a conversation with Douglas Preston:

Then I asked if any others [the seven ancient remains] had Caucasoid features, and there was a silence that gave me the sense that I was venturing onto controversial ground.
He guardedly replied, “Yes.”
“How many?”
“Well,” he said, “in varying degrees, all of them.” Kennewick Man’s bones are part of a growing quantity of evidence that the earliest inhabitants of the New World may have been a Caucasoid people. Other, tentative evidence suggests that these people may have originally come from Europe. (Preston, 1997:72)

There are some very interesting things about this discourse on the “race” of the remains and Preston’s description of Owsley. When Preston writes “[t]here was a silence that gave me the sense that I was venturing onto controversy,” he is portraying Owsley as a intellectual rebel who is fighting the scientific status quo. He removes Owsley from any historical context. Claiming European ties to the first inhabitants of the Americas was the scientific status quo into the 20th century. By stating, as a matter of fact, that there is a “growing quantity of evidence” that “these people may have originally come from Europe,” he assures the reader that the evidence is actually there, and he presents Owsley in the image of Copernicus in his struggle and persecution to prove the Earth rotates around the Sun.

Against all odds Douglas Owsely and Richard Jantz defend their theory. In an unpublished letter of support for the Nevada State Museum battle for Spirit Cave Mummy (which they won), Owsley and Jantz claim that the Spirit Cave Skull “[i]n terms of its closest classification, it does have a ‘European’ or ‘Archaic Caucasoid’ look...” (Preston, 1997:75) In reference to both Spirit Cave and Kennewick Man’s skulls they say, “there are no close resemblances to modern Native Americans.” They are in fact arguing, then, that no morphological changes could have occurred with in 9,000 or 10,000 years; this means that biology is static, and thus evolution is not valid when applied to Indian people. As David Hurst Thomas states in Skull Wars:

In North American Indian populations (and, indeed, human populations worldwide), there has been a distinct tendency for skulls to become more globular (“rounder”) and less robust over the last 10,000 years. This being so, no experienced physical anthropologist should be surprised that the Kennewick skull has a longer, more robust face than recent Native Americans.... Although forensic anthropologists can often produce spectacular results in separating modern “races,” this success requires very specialized assumptions that are wholly inappropriate when projected into the deep past. (Thomas, 2000:116)

So like their culture, Indian biology is static and not open to change like the rest of humanity.

Robson Bonnichsen, Douglas Owsely and Richard Jantz are anthropologists that have tapped into the American public’s fascination with racial discourse and desire to connect the original peoples of the Americas to Europe, but they are not alone. There are a growing number of geologists, geographers, botanists, linguists and geneticists who are supporting Bonnichsen’s studies at his Center for the Study of the First Americans at Oregon State University, but they are not using racialized discourse; they are talking in terms of migration theories.

Migration and Stone Tool Technology

Dennis Stanford, Bruce Bradley and Michael Collins are the leading anthropologists arguing a Europeans-First theory which has avoided racialized language. They use a theory based on stone tool technology to argue that Europeans were the first inhabitants of the Americas. They claim that there was a migration from Spain and France to the east coast of the Americas. Their evidence is the similarities between the stone tools of Solutrean in Europe and Clovis in the Americas. Dennis Stanford is the Chairman of the Anthropology Department at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and a Kennewick Man plaintiff. Bruce Bradley is President of Primitive Tech. Enterprises, Inc. in Cretez Colorado, and Adjunct Professor at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Michael Collins is an Anthropology Professor at University of Texas, Austin.

They argue that the earliest Americans, who are said to be from the Clovis Culture in the Americas are not descendants of Siberia (status quo theory, but lacking in much evidence), but from Iberia, which is the European peninsula that includes Spain and Portugal. The cultural connection is with the Solutrean Culture that occupied southwest France and the Iberia peninsula between 25,000 to 19,700 years before present. “There premise is based on three observations: Clovis sites are oldest and most abundant in the south-eastern United States; nearly all characteristics of Clovis can be found in the Solutrean; and during the last glacial maximum, exposure of the continental shelves brought ice-free parts of Europe to within 1,400 miles (2,250 km) of North America.” (Chatters, 2001:260) [See Appendix 1]

In their migration explanation, Dennis Stanford and Bruce Bradley state and argue for a maritime migration between Europe and the Americas “Solutrean peoples could have used this knowledge of water crafts to travel and exploit marine resources, which would have been especially important during the last glacial maximum, about 18,000 years ago, when most of Europe was covered with ice and competition for diminishing land resources must have been intense.” (Stanford and Bradley, 2000) A major problem with this argument is neither Solutrean nor Colvis cultures have any evidence that they “exploite [sic] marine resources”; there is no evidence of sea mammal hunting or deep-sea fishing. All people leave behind is their material culture, and neither of these cultures have any evidence they utilized marine resources; if we examine maritime cultures like the Makah of the northwest coast of the United States, there is evidence of sea mammal hunting and deep-sea fishing at sites like Ozette.

In an interview with Dennis Stanford, he was discussing the uniqueness of the bifacial Colvis stone tools. “And this is opposed to artifacts that are unifacial. Most classic Upper Paleolithic cultures of Eurasia are unifacial. There are some bifacial manufacturing technologies in that part of the world and one of them is the Solutrean. This is a replica of a Solutrean biface which is commonly found in France and down through the Iberian peninsula. It is older then Clovis but not that much older.” (Stanford, 1997) Later he and Bradley expand on this idea. “Solutrean and Clovis flintnappers used nearly identical stoneworking technologies. We observed a high degree of correspondence between stone and bone tools, as well as engraved limestone tablets, and caching of extra large bifaces and other tool stock. The Solutrean toolkit is, with few exceptions, nearly identical to that of Clovis.” (Stanford and Bradley, 2000)

I thought the idea of science was to base theories on hard evidence. To paraphrase a comment by Vine Deloria, Jr. in Red Earth White Lies this theory would never stand up in a court of law. The whole theory is speculative and based on circumstantial evidence, it would never pass a jury trial. Let’s start with the time frame: The Solutrean culture ended in 19,700 years before present. Clovis culture, as we know it, began no earlier then 13,500 years before present. That gives these adventurous Europeans just short of 3,000 years to sail 1,400 miles while deep-sea fishing. Beyond the commonsense that would throw out the idea of a 3,000 year sailing trip, there is the issue of the similarities between the stone tools. This strikes me as extremely circumstantial; the idea that two cultures could independently create similar stone technology (even bifacial) seems more probable then Europeans sailing across floating ice and stormy seas created by the contact between Arctic waters and the Humbolt Current. But if the word of an expert holds more weight then commonsense, according to Lawrence Straus, the leading expert in Solutrean culture, their technology was more diverse and based on regional differences than that of Clovis culture. The bottom line for me is that the peoples of the Americas are perfectly capable of creating one of the most unique technological cultures without having it connected or a descendant of European culture.

Re-Writing Colonization

The newest cry of oppression against scientists is that Indians are using NAGPRA to cover up the new evidence that the Americas was first colonized by Europeans. “For instance, in 1993, Robson Bonnichsen — a Kennewick Man plaintiff — found human hairs at a 10,000-year-old site in Montana. The Bureau of Land Management forbade DNA studies, Lanna says. He lists three other cases in which western U.S. skeletons at least 8,000 years old reportedly showed Caucasoid characteristics like Kennewick Man. Two were returned to tribes, and one remains in limbo.” (Lee, 1998) These sentiments can be heard in the testimony of Congressman Doc Hastings, R-Wash. in front of Congress; he was arguing to revise NAGPRA. He points out that the Indian communities hold so much power over the scientific community due to the vague nature of NAGPRA, so by revising it Congress would be “restoring a sense of balance and equal treatment to federal policy.” (Hastings, 1997) Behind the whining of scientists about the choke hold Indians have on them, there is a larger question of racialized discourse.

The racialized discourse in question is the re-writing history, the history of the colonization of the Americas. Dennis Stanford has argued that the European/Colvis peoples were wiped out by diseases brought to them by the ancestors of modern Indians. Once the Clovis people or their predecessors reached the New World, what happened to them? This is the second — and equally controversial — half of the theory: that the Clovis people or their immediate successors, the Folsom people, may have been supplanted by the ancestors of today’s Native Americans. In this scenario, Kennewick Man may have been part of a remnant Caucasoid population related to Clovis and Folsom. Dennis Stanford, of the Smithsonian, said to me, “For a long time, I’ve held the theory that the Clovis and the Folsom were overwhelmed by a migration of Asians over the Bering land bridge... The north Asians may have been carrying diseases that the Folsom and the Clovis had no resistance to” (Preston, 1997:80) Stanford creates a scenario identical to the role diseases played the genocide of American Indians by Europeans. If this idea becomes the status quo, or just generally accepted, there is no longer a need to address the genocide of American Indians. It becomes a cycle of migration and colonization of the Americas. The American Holocaust was just part two of a story started thousands of years earlier.

Others have taken it even further claiming that the point in Kennewick Man was evidence of a violent genocide of the Caucasian peoples originally in the Americas. As Louis Beams said in “Kennewick Man or Dead Indians Don’t Lie” the genocide of American Indians was just “white people” gettin’ revenge. Just as the stories of the peaceful European Moundbuilders who were killed off by an invasion of wild, violent, and barbaric people. These new violent people were the ancestors of American Indians. Science is again going to prove the superiority the Europeans and the violent nature of Indians, thus the justification of colonization and genocide.


There is no question that there has been multiple migrations to the Americas, but what is in question is the means and results of any study on the topic. As both Michel Foucault and Vine Deloria, Jr. have written about extensively, science is not the objective search for knowledge; it is immersed in the power struggles and racial hierarchies of this culture. The political ramifications and motivations of such “scientific research” could be ugly. Before these areas can be explored, there needs to be a real recognition of colonization; its process and long term effects. Then there needs to be reparations; issues of sovereignty and land claims must be resolved. After all this, the idea of migration can be explored. The best place to start this exploration is looking at and listening to Indian oral histories. There are stories of “boat people”, “white people” living on the other side of a valley, and “Bearded Men.” This starting point would not be one entangled within racist ideology or motivations.


  • Chatters, James. 2001. Ancient Encounters: Kennewick Man and the First Americans. New York: Simon & Schuster

  • Downey, Rodger. 2000. Riddle of the Bones: Politics, Science, Race, and the Story of Kennewick Man. New York: Copernicus

  • Feder, Kenneth. 1999. Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries. Mountain View: Mayfield Publishing Company

  • Gilmore, Don. 1997. “Origins: The First Americans — Hot on the Trail”. The NEARA Journal, Volume XXXI No. 1 Summer: 1–3

  • Hastings, Richard. 1997. Testomony at Congressional Hearing reguarding the Ammendment to The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

  • Lee, Mike.1998. “Old Bones Open New Divisions” Tri-City Herald. July 26 [a photo-copy of this article was given to me so I do not have the page numbers]

  • Preston, Douglas. 1997. “The Lost Man”. The New Yorker June 16: 70–81

  • Stanford, Dennis. interview recorded in March of 1997; available at

  • Stanford, Dennis and Bruce Bradley. 2000. “The Solutrean Solution — Did Some Ancient Americans Come form Europe?”. Discovering Archaeology February 2000 [a photo-copy of this article was given to me so I do not have the page numbers]

  • Thomas, David Hurst. 2000. Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity. New York: Basic Books