Kennewick Man: science 1, Army Corps and DoJ 0

The U.S. government was intent on “repatriating” the ancient remains of Kennewick Man for burial to Indian tribes in compliance with the perceived spirit of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), though any relation between those remains and current tribes is at best notional. The U.S. Department of Justice and Army Corps of Engineers had thrown their full weight on the side of immediate burial, even threatening criminal charges against individual scientists who insisted on litigating the case. “If it weren’t for a harrowing round of panicky last-minute maneuvering worthy of a legal thriller, the remains might have been buried and lost to science forever.” Fortunately, scientists won in the end, leaving the “most important human skeleton ever found in North America” finally free to disclose his secrets. [Smithsonian, earlier]

P.S. Welcome Popehat readers (“Science in the Hands of Angry Liberal Arts Majors”). And as several commenters point out, my summary above overstates the extent to which scientists actually prevailed, since the U.S. government continues to fight tenaciously to prevent further testing of the remains, and reportedly dumped a thousand tons of fill on the discovery site early on in case it hadn’t made its stance clear.


  • Athough it was a significant win, it was not “1, 0.” Much like Chicago and DC are dragging their heels over their losses in court with respect to the 2A, and making it as difficult as possible for people seeking to implement the “win,” the COE gave the scientists only 16 days to examine the skeleton, and have refused to allow another bone sample for DNA testing, and refused to allow testing of the spear point embedded in Kennewick’s hip, and have denied other tests.

    The tribes are still clamoring to rebury the skeleton as “theirs” despite the evidence to the contrary, and it appears the Corps is still bent on hiding the bones. The DOJ and COE were found to act in bad faith (to the tune of $2M+ out the taxpayers pocket to pay for the scientists’ attorney fees), and by refusing further study they are still acting in bad faith.

    No, this was not a clear one-to-zero win for science — at most, 16 days for science, 10 year for the COE, which will be upped to eternity as soon as the COE thinks everyone is looking the other way.

  • The COE was also reported to have dumped a million pounds of fill over the site to prevent further excavations.

    Did they get an EPA permit to fill in a wetland?

  • The Indians’ misguided behaviour is understandable, but what is particularly reprehensible is the tenacity of the authorities in fighting the claim all these years, despite (presumably) many changes in leadership. It should have been obvious soon after the initial evidence was in that, irrespective of the law, the archaeologists had right on their side.

  • Given their record, allowing the Army Corps of Engineers continued custody of Kennewick Man makes about as much sense as appointing the Deutsches Heer as curators of the Louvain University Library (Belgium, WW1).

    At a minimum, Congress should require a DNA sample to be taken before Kennewick Man is irretrievably lost. Ideally, a special prosecutor should be appointed against COE officials who destroyed a priceless archeological site.

  • As other commenters point out the C0E is way up in this fight.
    The scientists got to measure and test the out-of-context human remains but the site where they came from was intentionally and totally destroyed. Dumping a thousand tons of rip-rap on a shoreline site will do that. One or more CoE archaeologists had to sign off on that too. Government “scientists” serve the state, not science.

  • “Did they get an EPA permit to fill in a wetland?”

    Actually, those wetland permits are issued (under section 404 of the Clean Water Act) by the Corps of Engineers itself, so the question may be moot.

  • The stone analysis would be most interesting!

  • Let’s see…

    I am of Irish descent and I DEMAND that the Cashel Man be pulled from exhibit in the National Museum of Ireland, along with all the other “bog people” found in Ireland, and be buried immediately! How dare they be displayed!

    Actually, I don’t really care. I find it interesting–and applaud further study. And if I ever visit Ireland, I would be fascinated by a display of them. And while I feel connected to modern Irish culture, I certainly have no connection to the whatever was going on 7000 years ago. Not to mention, I am more likely descended from Celts (who didn’t move into Ireland until fourth century BCE, give or take a hundred years or so) or Vikings (who invaded in the eight century CE). The people who were there five thousand years ago are a mystery, and I think worth study.

    I understand the source/reason for NAGPRA (people’s grandparents were being dug up and displayed!), I don’t think it should apply to nine thousand year old mysteries. And I would think that even though it might upset the standard narrative, “native Americans” would be curious enough to support study.

    So, when are Egyptian mummies going to be returned to Egypt to be interred?