World & Nation

The Kennewick Man’s bones were accidentally found 20 years ago. Now, they’ll finally be returned

Kennewick Man
A plastic casting of the skull from the skeleton known as the Kennewick Man.
(Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

It may have taken an act of Congress, but the Kennewick Man’s weary bones will now be laid to rest in a sacred grave on Native American tribal land in Washington state’s Columbia basin — just as they first were about 9,000 years ago.

A bill approved by the U.S. House and Senate was sent to President Obama on Saturday for his signature, returning the remains of the Ancient One, as his descendants call him, to the tribes of eastern Washington. 

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) introduced the bill last year to return the bones to their “proper resting place.”

“This victory would not have been possible without the determination, collaboration and leadership of the claimant tribes of the Columbia River plateau, who impressed upon me just how much it meant to them for Congress to end decades of debate,” Murray said in a statement. 


The bones, now being held by the Burke Museum at the University of Washington in Seattle, were accidentally uncovered in 1996 by a pair of college students along the Columbia River in Kennewick, Wash.

The skeleton was later determined to be among the oldest and most complete ever discovered in North America, setting off a 20-year saga to determine its origin and likely descendants.

A decade-long court fight involving Washington Native American tribes seeking the remains for reburial prolonged in part by a federal judge’s skepticism. He ordered more studies based on evidence presented by scientists from the Smithsonian Institution that the skull was probably not Native American. 

Using high-tech DNA methods, a group of scientists from around the globe concluded the bones indeed most closely matched those of the original Americans. The skeleton has been estimated to be 8,400 to 9,300 years old, and the man was 5-foot-6 to 5-foot-7, weighing 154 to 165 pounds.


Having served their scientific purpose, the bones will eventually be brought from Seattle to an undisclosed burial site in the Columbia Basin.

A coalition of basin tribes — the Yakama, Nez Perce, Umatilla and Colville tribes along with the Wanapum Band, all likely descendants of the Kennewick Man — will handle the final arrangements.

 “We come from this land and when we pass, we return to this land, as our relative the Ancient One did more than 9,000 years ago,” JoDe Goudy, chairman of the Yakama National Tribal Council, told the Tri-City Herald in Kennewick. “Now with the help from our friends in Congress, he will be returned so that he may finally rest.”

Anderson is a special correspondent.


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