On February 17, 2017, members of Northwest tribes came to the Burke Museum and took the remains of Kennewick Man, which had been stored at the museum since 1998. The next day (February 18), the tribal members reburied the “Ancient One,” as he was called, in a ceremony at an undisclosed spot on the Columbia Plateau. This brings a formal end to a long legal and cultural dispute that brought scientists, the federal government, and tribal peoples into conflict over the 9,000-year-old human remains found along the Columbia River in 1996.
The Burke Museum issued a statement at the time, reviewing the legal history.
The “ethnic” identity of Kennewick Man was at the heart of the legal and cultural issues. Under NAGPRA, local tribes in the United States can reclaim human remains and cultural artifacts collected for museums and scientific research when a cultural connection can be shown. The discovery of Kennewick Man raised complex issues.
When radiocarbon dating revealed that the remains were around 9,000 years old, a cultural connection with modern Native American peoples became less clear, apart for the geographic location. More controversially, the elongated skull shape of Kennewick Man was initially described as “Caucasian” or more similar to modern Europeans in appearance, with features that are not thought of as typical of modern Native American populations. The appearance of the skull led to speculation that Kennewick Man may have been derived from Asian peoples related to the living Ainu of Japan, and so would be distinct from the modern Native Americans who now live on the Columbia Plateau, thought to come from a different group of ancient Asian populations who once lived in a Siberian region.
Local tribal groups from the Columbia Plateau region, however, took legal action under NAGPRA to claim the remains, which they referred to the “Ancient One” and accepted as an ancestor. A number of scientific researchers, in turn challenged the Native American claim in court and sought permission to study the remains, which had been transferred to the Burke Museum.
A team of paleoanthropologists were granted permission to study the remains at the Burke Museum in and later published a scientific volume that favored a possible Ainu-related connection, even creating a speculative bust reconstruction that showed Kennewick Man with wavy hair and a thick beard, similar to the modern Ainu, and unlike the straight hair and sparse beards of most Native Americans.
A dramatic turn in the Kennewick Man story came in 2015, when a laboratory in Denmark compared his ancient DNA with modern DNA samples provided by tribal peoples in the Northwest region as well as from other populations. The numerous matches in the DNA provided strong evidence that, despite the shape of his skull, Kennewick Man had clear genetic ties with modern Native American populations from the Columbia Plateau, and so was not more closely related to the Ainu or to European groups. This scientific evidence provided a good legal basis for the tribes to claim the remains as an “ancestor” under federal laws and to rebury the bones according to cultural practices.