The Ancient One
Text Item Type Metadata
One hot summer Sunday on July 28, 1996, college students William Thomas and David Deacy trekked along the Columbia River’s muddy shoreline hoping to witness the annual Columbia Cup hydroplane race, a Tri-Cities tradition since 1966. While walking through the muddy shallows at Columbia Park in Kennewick they were shocked to come upon a human skull partially buried in the shoreline. They notified the police of this unexpected find, who in turn sent the remains to Floyd Johnson of the Benton County coroner’s office for identification. Johnson was surprised by the age of the remains and promptly contacted consulting archeologist Dr. James Chatters for assistance. When the exact age of the find remained in doubt, Chatters sent a fragment of bone to be radiocarbon dated at the University of California, Riverside. The initial results indicated the individual soon to be dubbed by scientists and the press as “the Kennewick Man” and by Native American tribes as “the Ancient One,” was approximately 9,000 years old. This discovery initiated one of the most contentious debates over the handling of human remains in American history while casting light on the historical legacy of Native Americans in Washington State.
This unique find reflects the fact that Native Americans resided in the Priest Rapids Valley for millennia. Indeed, the oldest discovered artifacts date back approximately 11,000 years. Although the remains were discovered at the confluence of the Columbia, Snake, and Yakima rivers, an ancient hub of travel and trade, there is little certainty surrounding the Ancient One’s life and death. Bone analyses determined he frequently maneuvered a spear and knapped stone into points. As a young man he even recovered from a spear injury to his hip, but the stone point remained lodged in his bone. Isotopic analyses also concluded that salmon may well have been a primary ingredient in his diet; deer, salmon, and camas bulbs are ancient staple resources in the region. Following the initial discovery the Umatilla, Yakama, Wanapum, Colville, and Nez Perce tribes of Washington and Idaho united to claim the Ancient One as their ancestor. Tribal oral histories dating back thousands of years are consistent with the 2015 analysis of DNA remnants by a team of Danish scientists led by Dr. Eske Willerslev confirming the Ancient One was indeed related to contemporary Native Americans.
The Ancient One’s heritage became a point of controversy once Dr. Chatters announced the age of the remains. This raised the possibility that the Army Corps of Engineers, who controlled the excavation site, was obligated to repatriate the body to Native tribes under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990. However, Chatters’ most controversial statement was his conclusion that the skeleton appeared to have “Caucasoid” features indicating the individual shared more traits in common with Europeans than Native Americans. Although Chatters noted his findings did not mean Europeans had reached the continent before Native Americans, much nuance was lost in the subsequent publicity, and many articles questioned whether Native Americans were truly the original inhabitants of the Americas. The Umatilla and allied tribes argued that such statements were highly offensive, and petitioned for immediate repatriation of the remains and a halt to all further study. Native remains have often been misappropriated and stolen by anthropologists and archeologists. Many tribes felt that the scientists and the press were using the find to dismiss and delegitimize Native oral histories and claims to the land, the latest steps in a long history of abuse.
The Army Corps of Engineers supported the tribes in their quest for repatriation, prompting fears in the scientific community that a chance to examine an ancient human and answer questions about early American settlement would be lost forever. In October 1996, eight scientists sued to halt repatriation and allow the remains to be studied, initiating a twenty-year legal battle documented in numerous books and articles. At the heart of their case was the argument that NAGPRA only applied to modern tribes, and that remains so ancient could not be definitively attributed to any “existing tribes or cultures.” After a lengthy process of adjudication the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals handed down the final verdict in 2004, ruling in the scientists’ favor and authorizing analysis of the remains. The situation changed in 2015 when new DNA technology enabled researchers to safety conclude that the Ancient One was related to “modern Native Americans.” As a result of these findings the federal government repatriated the Ancient One’s remains to the allied tribes for reburial at a secret location along the Columbia River. The discovery of the Ancient One demonstrates the need to establish and cultivate productive and respectful relationships between academic researchers and local tribes and communities, but also shines light onto the history of the Priest Rapids Valley and the people who resided in these lands over the last ten thousand years.