The Kennewick Man

There was a lot of controversy between aboriginal groups and scientists in regards to Kennewick man. Radiocarbon dated to 8,340-9,200 an initial study carried out by scientists based on cranial morphology implied that the skeleton had unique Caucasoid features suggesting that Kennewick Man was not of Native American origin. The aboriginals repudiated these claims, arguing that they were descendents. They demanded repatriation of the remains under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). After 8 years of litigation, in 2004 a federal appeals court judged that Kennewick Man’s extreme age entailed that it was not feasible to establish a link to the native groups. However the advent of DNA sequencing was to have dramatic implications.

Eske Willerslev, a Danish palaeogenomicist conducted DNA analysis on Kennewick Man. He worked alongside the native communities in order to obtain native DNA to compare Kennewick Man’s with. Willerslev actively encouraged the tribes to be involved in his research. He discovered that the Colville member’s DNA most resembled Kennewick Man’s. Prior to this discovery, the media had misconstrued the scientific data, turning the description of the Kennewick man into a racial concept used to imply that the Americas were originally inhabited by Europeans. This only worsened the reputation of the field of archaeology and further exacerbated hostility between aboriginal communities and the scientists.

The Kennewick Man Forensics 

When Willerslev invited local communities to participate in the research, it helped reconcile the relationship between the scientific and the native communities, aiding to redeem the reputation of archaeology. The local communities got a chance to work alongside archaeologists and learn more about their heritage. Willerslev’s open-mindedness towards working with aboriginals also allowed them to feel that their decisions and opinions were being respected. This event highlighted the important fact that archaeologists should realize that they must respect and act with responsibility toward the remains they investigate and the peoples who claim to be descendants. Archaeologists and scientists have great power as their research serves to write human history. If their conclusions are wrong, the investigations misguided or do not take into account all the factors, groups of people living today may be denied their history.

Willerslev’s research and those of the other scientists demonstrated how archaeologists have the power to speak about past peoples whose voices and stories can only be heard through those of the scientists. Sadly, due to this, many scientists claim to be the only ones capable of doing so. However Native Americans have their own views of the past and history, based on oral traditions as well as non-verbal means and these need to be taken into account. Willerslev’s collaborative efforts made it clear that archaeologists should attempt to foster friendly working relationships with native groups. They should do this not merely as it is a legal requirement but because they respect the aboriginals’ justified interests in their past. Furthermore collaborating with native peoples can allow archaeologists to gain valuable insights into the past. The past sometimes appears to be a scarce resource and a subject of dispute between different groups, who attempt to control it and shape it according to their own interests. The case of Kennewick Man has demonstrated that archaeologists must not impose their own vision of the past on others but share it. After all archaeology could be argued to be a dead science if it does not take into account the living people whose lives it can deeply affect.


Curry, Andrew. “Ancient DNA’s Intrepid Explorer.” American Association for the Advancement of Science (2007). Electronic.


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