Scientists finally get their hands on Kennewick man

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Bone studies and DNA tests will help determine the origins of the 9,000-year-old skeleton.

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America's most highly contested anthropology specimen, Kennewick man, is finally being studied by scientists.

After nine years of federal-court battles and several months of preparation, researchers last month began examining the ancient skull and bones. The US government and Native American tribes had fought to block the bones' examination under a federal law designed to protect ancient human remains. But last year, the eight scientists involved won the legal battle.

“This is one of the most important specimens in the Americas.”

The male skeleton was found in July 1996, along the banks of the Columbia River near Kennewick, Washington. Preliminary radiocarbon dating suggests that Kennewick man lived about 9,300 calendar years ago. As there are so few full skeletons of New World individuals more than 8,000 years old, the researchers want to closely catalogue everything about the skeletal remains to try to work out who he was and where he came from. The bones will be inventoried and measured, and the skeleton reconstructed. It will then be checked for evidence of disease, trauma, diet and, with luck, DNA. The shape of the skull and the length of the arms and legs are also particularly valuable for deducing an individual's evolutionary history.

Within grasp: nine years after its discovery, the true origins of the 9,000-year-old skeleton of Kennewick man can at last be investigated. Credit: H. E. BERRYMAN LEBANON, TENNESSEE

So far, key skeletal remains — particularly pieces of the skull — have been scanned using computerized tomography. The researchers aim to make a complete skull cast from the scan data to enable them to study the skull without disturbing the real bones too much. A stone blade or point encased in the pelvis has also been extensively scanned. The weapon is buried so deeply that the researchers can't identify its point or base, which could help to determine the weapon's heritage.

Douglas Owsley, head anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, who is leading some of the studies, says he is glad the work has finally begun. “I am really relieved,” he says. “This is one of the most important specimens in the Americas.”

But not all of the scientists who fought the case can take part in the work. The battle in federal court in Portland, Oregon, was so long that two of the eight scientists have retired, and a third, Robson Bonnichsen of Texas A&M University in College Station, died in his sleep last December, aged 64 — just two weeks after getting a look at the specimen. “He was euphoric when he got to see it,” says Cleone Hawkinson, a retired anthropologist from Portland who helps the group. Ironically, Bonnichsen had filed a court declaration in 2002 arguing for a quick decision because senior scientists in the group might not live to study the bones.

The dispute has also been financially costly. The federal government must pay the scientists' $2.5-million legal costs, and the government's own costs are estimated at $6 million.

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Dalton, R. Scientists finally get their hands on Kennewick man. Nature 436, 10 (2005) doi:10.1038/436010b

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