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Office of the Secretary, DOI
For Release: January 13, 2000
Contact: Stephanie Hanna (O)

Cultural Affiliation Studies underway to analyze evidence of Shared Group Identity with present day American Indian Tribes

The Department of the Interior today announced its conclusions on the first of two questions Interior is answering for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: whether the human skeletal remains found in the Columbia River (known as Kennewick Man) are to be considered Native American.

The Department of the Interior considers the Kennewick remains "Native American" for the purposes of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA). The decision is based upon recent radiocarbon dating, analysis of a lithic point embedded in the left hip and other anthropological and sediment analysis performed in February, 1999.

In early September, 1999, two small bone samples were extracted from the metatarsal and tibia of the skeletal remains. These samples were divided in half and four samples were then sent for independent analysis and dating to three radiocarbon laboratories: the University of California at Riverside; Beta Analytical in Miami, Florida; and the National Science Foundation Accelerated Mass Spectometry Facility at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Two of the dates from the three laboratories produced radiocarbon dates that closely matched an original radiocarbon date done in 1996. The date from Beta Analytical of 8410 +/- 40 B.P., adjusted or calibrated on scientific formulas taking into consideration changes in atmospheric carbon, yields a likely chronological age of the bones between 9510 and 9320 B.P.

"We believe that these are the bones of an ancient man who lived most of his life and died in the Pacific Northwest more than 9000 years ago," said Dr. Francis P. McManamon, Chief Archaeologist for the National Park Service and Chief Consulting Archaeologist for the Department of the Interior. "His age shows that he was here more than 8,000 years before the arrival of European exploration of our hemisphere. The sediment adhering to his bones and the shape of the Cascade point in his hip provide additional evidence consistent with the radiocarbon dates. For these reasons, Kennewick Man is to be considered Native American for the purposes of the NAGPRA."

As defined in NAGPRA, "Native American" refers to human remains and cultural items relating to tribes, peoples or cultures that resided within the area now encompassed by the United States prior to the historically documented arrival of European explorers. This definition exists irrespective of when a particular group may have begun to reside in a particular area, and irrespective of whether any or all of these early indigenous Americans were or were not culturally or biologically affiliated with present day Indian tribes.

The Interior Department is now in the midst of studies to address the issue of cultural affiliation or shared group identity between Kennewick Man and any present day tribes that have historically inhabited the area in the State of Washington around the confluence of the Columbia and Snake Rivers, where Kennewick Man's remains were found. At the present time, five tribes: the Umatilla, Colville, Wanapum, Nez Perce and Yakama have claimed the human remains as their ancestor.

The months taken in providing radiocarbon dating results were attributable to very low amounts of human collagen detectable in the bone samples. This phenomenon is consistent with very ancient human bone. Both the University of California at Riverside and the National Science Foundation Accelerated Mass Spectometry Facility at the University of Arizona found it necessary to run repeated tests in order to verify results and have noted that the level of collagen was below normal levels considered optimal by their laboratories. It should also be noted that it is likely that other carbon intruded into the tibia bone, yielding an ancient date that was more recent than the radiocarbon dates of the metacarpal bone tested in 1996 or the metatarsal samples from 1999.

The chronological date now accepted will be an important aspect of cultural affiliation studies that are now underway. During December and January, the National Park Service contracted four experts to report on archaeologic, linguistic, ethnographic, bio-archaeologic and traditional historic information. These experts are:

  • Dr. Kenneth Ames: archaeological information. Dr. Ames is a Professor of Anthropology at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon.
  • Dr. Steven Hackenberger: bio-archaeological and mortuary archaeological information. Dr. Hackenberger is Chairman of the Department of Anthropology at Central Washington University in Ellensberg, Washington.
  • Dr. Eugene Hunn: linguistic information. Dr. Hunn is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington.
  • Dr. Daniel Boxberger: traditional historic and ethnographic information. Dr. Boxberger is a Professor of Anthropology at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington.
  • "The Department of the Interior is very grateful to the four experienced professionals who have so graciously agreed to add these important studies to their existing workload at their universities," Dr. McManamon said. "Under normal circumstances, the National Park Service would expect to have at least a year to gather and analyze the information they will provide. We have been ordered by the District Court in Oregon to come to conclusions based on these studies by March 24, 2000, and we will do everything possible to meet this deadline."

    The Department of the Interior has not yet determined whether DNA testing is possible, given the low levels of collagen in the bones, or would be necessary to do on the Kennewick remains.

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