Nearly two decades ago, two young men stumbled across a human skull in the Columbian River at Kennewick, Washington. The discovery ended up being one of the biggest archaeological finds of a generation and despite extensive research, scientists still don’t have all the answers about the origins of this mysterious individual.
Following the discovery of the skull, archaeologists were able to recover 350 other bones and fragments and dated the remains to be somewhere between 8,000 and 9,500 years old. The remains were determined to be those of a male of late middle age and tall with a slender build. Kennewick Man, as he has become known is one of the oldest and most complete skeletons ever found in North America. However, its significance doesn’t end there.
During the analysis on Kennewick Man’s skeleton, archaeologist James Chatters was surprised to discover that his anatomical features were quite different from those of modern Native Americans. In particular, his long narrow face, prominent chin, and tall stature did not resemble remains of other Paleo-Indians. In fact, the facial measurements show most similarity to the Ainu of Japan. The Ainu are a Caucasian minority who once possessed the whole of the Japanese Islands. A people closely related to the Ainu also once lived in Polynesia and many light-skinned Polynesians (typically from the ruling class) have facial features similar to Kennewick Man.
Extensive radiocarbon and DNA testing could resolve some of these uncertainties. However, attempts to research the remains in depth have been curtailed by more than a decade of legal clashes between scientists, the American government and five different Native American tribes who claim Kennewick Man as one of their ancestors.
According to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), if human remains are found on federal lands and their cultural affiliation to a Native American tribe can be established, the affiliated tribe may claim them. The Umatilla tribe requested custody of the remains, wanting to bury them according to tribal tradition. Their claim was contested by researchers hoping to study the remains.
In 2004, a group of anthropologists sued the United States for the right to conduct tests on the skeletons. It was ruled that a cultural link between any of the Native American tribes and the Kennewick Man was not genetically justified allowing scientific study of the remains to continue. Anthropologist Joseph Powell of the University of New Mexico examined the remains which were analysed using craniometric data, including those drawn from Asian and North American populations. Powell confirmed what Chatters had initially claimed, that Kennewick Man was not European but most resembled the Ainu and Polynesians. Powell said that dental analysis showed the skull had a 94 per cent chance of being a Sundadont group like the Ainu and Polynesians.
In 2005, a 10-day examination of the skeleton led by forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley further confirmed that the skull’s features resemble those of the Ainu and suggested that the man’s ancestors may have retreated from advancing people from central Asia and travelled by boat over generations along the coast northward and east to North America.
However, the same year, a United States senator amended the NAGPRA, changing the definition of “Native American” to that which is or was “indigenous to the United States”. This meant that Kennewick Man could be classified as Native American regardless of whether any link to a contemporary tribe could be found. However, the ruling did not resolve the controversy as it remains to be decided which Native American group should take possessions of the remains. While the debate continues, Kennewick Man is being kept in a private area of Burke Museum at the University of Washington.
Native American tribes continue in their battle to have the remains reburied. According to Vivian Harrison, NAGPRA coordinator for the Yakama Indian Nation, it is painful for Kennewick Man’s bones to remain unburied.
“This is a human being, and in our belief, his journey has been interrupted by leaving the ground. It is disturbing to us. My main question here is when will they be finished? When will they let him go so he can return to the ground and finish his journey?” she said.
According to their belief system, real harm falls upon the community when spirits are disturbed in their rest, including murders, accidents and chaos.
Nevertheless, scientists continue in their battle to study Kennewick Man and earlier this year researchers in Copenhagen were given permission to conduct tests using new methods that could for the first time extract some of the skeleton’s DNA, perhaps answering the question of the ancient man’s ancestry. The results have not yet been released.
The remains of Kennewick Man have the potential to significantly alter conventional views of how, when and by whom the Americas were populated. However, political and ethical issues may mean that some of these questions will remain unanswered.
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