Congress just resolved a 20-year debate over Neolithic remains

Greg Nash

A fierce battle over the remains of a Neolithic hunter is a step closer to resolution after Congress passed a water infrastructure measure last week.

The skeleton, known as Kennewick Man, was uncovered on federal land that once belonged to the Umatilla tribe near the Columbia River in 1996. Native tribes in the Columbia Basin wanted the remains, which are nearly 9,000 years old, according to carbon dating tests, to be given a proper burial.

{mosads}But some archaeologists argued that Kennewick Man was unrelated to native tribes. Some believed the remains were evidence that Caucasians had been present in the new world thousands of years before European settlers arrived.

The debate set off a decadelong court fight between tribes and the archaeologists, who sued the Army Corps of Engineers for the right to study the remains. The case made its way to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled there was insufficient proof that the remains were related to today’s tribes.

As the court fight progressed, Kennewick Man’s bones lay under lock and key at Seattle’s Burke Museum.

After another decade of study, DNA tests conducted by the University of Copenhagen and the University of Chicago found genetic links between Kennewick Man and five tribes that claimed him as a relative. 

But Kennewick Man’s final resting place has been delayed by Washington state politics. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) has long advocated for returning the bones to Columbia Basin tribes, while then-Rep. Doc Hastings (R), who represented the area where Kennewick Man’s remains had been discovered and chaired the House Natural Resources Committee, did not intervene in the case.

This year, Murray and two Washington congressmen — including Hastings’s successor, Rep. Dan Newhouse (R) — pushed to include a provision returning the bones in the water infrastructure bill.

That provision in the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act would transfer ownership of Kennewick Man’s remains from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has held possession of his remains since his discovery 20 years ago, to the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation. The state agency already has regulations in place to return the bones to native tribes.

The Senate passed the water infrastructure bill on Friday. The House passed it earlier this month.

“The inclusion of this important provision in the final water infrastructure agreement honors the rights and traditions of these Tribes. We are close to finally returning the Ancient One home,” Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.) said in a statement.

Umatilla board of trustees member Armand Minthorn said in a statement that Kennewick Man had been “denied his right to a proper burial for twenty years.”

“We are glad for this long overdue decision. Our efforts will not cease until he returns to his people once and for always,” Minthorn said. “We will rest when he can rest.” 

Tags Denny Heck Doc Hastings Patty Murray

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