After dying about 9,000 years ago, a man some call the Ancient One lived a kind of second life. In 1996, his grave along the Columbia River near Kennewick, Washington, was discovered and his bones excavated. Scientists wanted him in a museum—skeletons that ancient and complete in North America are exceedingly rare. But Native Americans claimed he was an ancestor who belonged buried in the womb of the earth. The Ancient One was argued about in courts. He became a newspaper headline. His bones traveled to Seattle—a small piece of him even went to Copenhagen. A half-dozen books and dozens of academic articles were written about him. Now after 20 years of living the controversial life of a celebrity of the dead, the Ancient One will be returned to a grave.
On December 19, 2016, President Obama signed the Water Resources Development Act, which contains a brief provision to return the Ancient One—also known as Kennewick Man—to five tribes. This law is the end of a long battle that pitted Native Americans and their advocates against scientists. However, the need for a law to return just one skeleton is a sign that the repatriation wars are far from over. It is an important moment to reflect on what we’ve learned and what’s next.
The human remains from Kennewick were controversial from nearly the moment of discovery. At first considered a murder scene, studies soon revealed the skeleton to be around 9,000 years old, proven by carbon dating and a stone spear that had miraculously missed the Ancient One’s abdominal cavity and embedded in his hip bone. The first archaeologist to study the remains identified the skull as being “Caucasoid” in shape, setting off fiery debates about the man’s origins. Some speculated that he was a migrant from beyond North America, with a number of scientists arguing his closest living relatives were Polynesian and the Ainu of Japan. (Although that didn’t stop a neo-Nazi group from claiming his remains.) Native Americans insisted he was Native American.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 established the process to deal with competing claims for ancient skeletons found on federal land. NAGPRA was the result of decades of disputes between Native Americans and scholars over the control over human remains, funerary items, and sacred and communally-owned objects. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was the government agency responsible for compliance with NAGPRA in this case. The Corps concluded that the remains were culturally affiliated with a consortium of five local tribes—the Colville, Nez Perce, Umatilla, Wanapum, and Yakima—largely based on their oral traditions of living in the region for millennia.
However, eight scientists sued to prevent the impending repatriation. They won their case in 2004, when the judge found that under NAGPRA’s definitions, the Ancient One was too old to be “Native American.” A scientific team was assembled and after 10 years of study published a 680-page tome. We learned that the Ancient One once stood five feet seven inches tall. He was stocky and right handed. He was wounded by the spear in his teenage years, which he likely survived because someone cared for him while he healed. When he was about forty years old, he died and was intentionally buried beside the Columbia River. The scientists hypothesized that a group of ancient Asians, ancestors of the Japanese Jōmon culture, traveled along the coasts of Asia to North America and were the progenitors of the Kennewick Man.
Then, in 2015, DNA results of a 0.2-gram flake of the Ancient One’s finger that had been taken to Copenhagen for analysis were published in Nature. Not only was the Ancient One proven to be most closely related to living Native Americans, his closest known genetic relatives are members of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, one of the claimant tribes located just 200-miles from the burial site.
Although, initially it looked like NAGPRA could be applied to the Ancient One’s remains after all, his relations and supporters were not taking risks. They successfully secured the legislation for the Ancient One’s return, which must now proceed within 90 days.
The Ancient One, in his first and second life, has taught us much about history, identity, race, and the politics of the past. He has also taught us about the limits, problems, and potential of repatriation law.
The Ancient One reveals NAGPRA’s failures. This law was passed to resolve centuries-long disputes over the control and ownership of Native American cultural property and human remains. Although there have been undeniable successes—more than 50,000 skeletons, 1.4 million funerary objects, and 14,000 sacred and communally owned objects have been repatriated—the law has too many holes to fundamentally resolve this conflict.
And yet, although NAGPRA is broken, it is not beyond fixing. It is a necessary law that creates a standard process for all museums and tribes to follow, and provides a foundational legal statement on the rights of Native Americans to control their own heritage. To fix NAGPRA, Congress could begin by making clear that ancient skeletons like the Ancient One are Native American under the law—an amendment supported by both the National Congress of the American Indian and the Society for American Archaeology. Congress could then move on to increasing funding for the NAGPRA grants program and strengthening the authority of the seven-member review committee that oversees the law.
NAGPRA requires archaeologists, museum professionals, and government representatives to consult with Native Americans—to engage in meaningful conversations about the future of the past. Because the law is likely to always be an imperfect vehicle of justice, both groups should do more to avoid conflict. The kind of animosity sparked by the Ancient One’s discovery was unnecessary and a sad testimony to his storied life.
But in the end, the Ancient One also shows that the law can be a bridge rather than a wall that divides. This was demonstrated when the geneticists who studied the Ancient One’s DNA worked with the claimant tribes, seeking their consent and collaboration. Colville tribal members donated their own DNA, which helped establish their connection to the Ancient One. The Ancient One’s last lesson is that when all sides work together more may be gained than lost.
Chip Colwell, PhD, is senior curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and editor-in-chief of SAPIENS. His new book is Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America’s Culture.