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The Kennewick Man: A Cultural & Anthropological Enigma

The tensions between science and culture extend far beyond disputes over evolution. In some cases, science and culture disagree on not just what is true, but how actions should be taken in the real world. The story of Kennewick Man is a perfect example of this.

In 1996, while two tourists were visiting Kennewick, on the Columbia River in Washington, they stumbled across a human skull. After the police collected the skull and an almost completely intact skeleton, they determined that the bones came from a Caucasian man. But strangely, there was no murder investigation. This is because, in a very strange twist, Carbon-dating tests showed that the bones were more than 9,000 years old much older than the earliest recorded Caucasian visits to North America in the 14th century.

Read Edward Rothstein's article, "Antiquities, The World Is Your Homeland", and think carefully about the complicated ownership issues in this case. This reading is on Library Reserve at the University of Huntsville-Alabama library. To access it, go to and enter your course password, which is center32. If you have any questions, please call 800-685-1302 for Library Services or email [email address removed by system]

Once you have read the article, visit the PBS website about Kennewick man, focusing on the scientists' claims ( and on the processes used to reconstruct a very lifelike model of Kennewick Man ( Then, do some research of your own into this conflict, as well as other science-culture disputes you think are relevant.
You should make a post that very clearly outlines your opinion on the case: Who you think deserves ownership of the remains and why, what should be done with these remains, and what sacrifices will be made when your own solution is implemented.

Solution Preview

Scientific research is neither moral nor immoral - it is just that; research. The manner in which the research is conducted, however, does have moral or ethical underpinnings - human experimentation, excess cruelty, lack of respect, etc. In the field of anthropology and archaeology, the issues surrounding the Kennewick Man case represent a common paradigm and theme in modern human studies: do the bones and artifacts belong to the scientific community or to the tribe that claims them as ancestral objects? How does cultural relevancy impact a decision that might have great scientific importance versus the emotional and philosophical needs of a culture?

Briefly, a human skull was discovered by two outdoorsmen. Thinking it was quite old, they took it to the county coroner who passed it on to James Chatters, and archaeologist. Chatters, and his team of archaeologists, went back down to the river's bank and retrieved a nearly complete human skeleton, with a long, narrow face suggestive of a person of European descent.

The skeleton confused Chatters, because he noticed that the teeth had no cavities, and for a grown man, his teeth were extremely ground down. Cavities are the result of a corn-based (or sugar-enhanced) diet; grinding usually results from grit in the diet. Neither of these things is true for the diets of most modern people. And Chatters spotted a projectile point embedded in his right pelvis, a Cascade point, normally dated between 5,000 to 9,000 years before the present. It was clear that the point had been there while the individual was alive; the lesion in the bone had partially healed. Chatters sent off a bit of the bone to be radiocarbon dated. Imagine his astonishment when he received the radiocarbon date as over 9,000 years ago.

Chatters showed some of the bones to physical anthropologist Catherine J. MacMillan, a professor emeritus at Central Washington University. She had made many of the same observations as Chatter. CAT scans of the pelvis, however, indicated that the projectile point might be of the Cascade phase, usually dated between ca. 9000 and 4500 B.P. "I was stunned when I examined the pelvic bone and the projectile point associated with it," wrote MacMillan in an August 31 letter to the Benton County coroner, "so I decided to reexamine the skull. My opinion remained the same--Caucasian male."

Later that month, anthropologist Grover S. Krantz of Washington State University examined the bones. The skeleton "cannot be anatomically assigned to any existing tribe in the area, nor even to the western native American type in general," he wrote to Chatters on September 2. "It shows some traits that are more commonly encountered in material from the eastern United States or even of European origin, while certain other diagnostic traits cannot presently be determined."

Because of the skeleton's age, the Corps of Engineers determined that it was "of Native American ancestry" and therefore subject to NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. (The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation provides for the protection, inventory, and repatriation of Native American cultural items, human remains, and associated funerary objects.) On August 30, according to Chatters, the corps asked the Benton County coroner's office to take custody of the skeleton and bar further access, and on September 2 custody was transferred to the corps.

In the case of human remains inadvertently discovered on federal land, NAGPRA regulations require the government to ...

Solution Summary

The solution is an extensive discussion of the scientitifc and cultural issues surrounding the astounding discovery and subsequent political and social intrigue brought by the 'Kennewick Man', the 9,000 year old almost-intact skeleton of an allegedly Caucasian ancestor according to initial scientific findings. The issue at hand is the questionable inefficiency of the laws regarding NAGPRA whereby by antiquity alone, certain anthropoligical discoveries are turned over to the tribal authorities barring further investigation. The discovery is seen as phenomenally important to science but the political fallout especially since the decision was made by the Corps of Engineers for the return of the body to the tribes calling the area where the body was found their ancestral home has made further testing difficult. The implications of further studies on the bones with regards to Human Migration is promising but with the cultural and political and cultural intrigue complicating it, it seems that such studies will not at all happen. The solution expounds on this implications.