Owsley’s Kennewick Man Research May be Trumped by DNA Tests Similar to Anzick Child

By Mary Fairchild (updated 11/15)

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Many Native-Americans do not believe that archaeologists are capable of interpreting and preserving their past.  Last spring, Smithsonian’s curator Douglas Owsley publicly told the tribes that the Kennewick Man was not Native American, but this year, DNA analysis in Denmark appears to be proving Owsley’s research team was wrong.

Both Indians and Anthropologists and ..Archaeologists… offer the reader information on the conflict between American Indians and scholars, as seen by those who wish to study, record, and enlist American Indians in the disciplines of anthropology and archaeology, and by those who have been the subject of those efforts. ….They illustrate the benefits of anthropology and the burdens borne by those who come under anthropology’s scrutiny. …We are no longer ‘Indiana Jones’ dropping into a village to take the best and brightest artifacts. We now work with native people throughout the world to develop histories with meaning to us all.” Joe Watkins (4)

The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Yakama Indian Nation, the Nez Perce Tribe, and the Colville and Warm Springs nations fought Owsley and his team in court. They believed that scientific examinations disrespected Native American beliefs about the sanctity of their dead.

The Umatilla claim that not only their oral history goes back 10,000 years, but their people have been present on their historical territory since the dawn of time. The tribe had wanted to bury the skeletal remains of the Kennewick Man.

For many years, our grave sites were called burial grounds. …They are not even accorded the dignity of being called cemeteries. Our people have been trafficked… Our greatest chief, Mangas Coloraoas, his head was decapitated and sent to Euorpe on a tour. Captain Jack, a Modoc Chief, his skull was used as a paper weight by a government official at the Smithsonian Institution for years. For thousands of years, we have revered our dead people. We honor them. To us they are not—they are not dead. They are alive. They live with us. We work hard to make them trans—transfer to the spirit world… We honor them and we honor their remains. To us the earth is a sacred place because of our dead people. Alexander Ewen, NAGPRA Sentencing Hearing of William Stevens

DNA analysis has the power to break through bias and improve the level of objectivity in research.  With a lack of analysis and published peer review articles, hasty conclusions had been made regarding the Kennewick Man whose isolated skull was then ascribed to a biological race on mere qualitative and subjective features. Douglas Owsley Chooses to Omit Peer-Review on Kennewick Man Research

Peter Lape, curator of archaeology at the Burke Museum, where Kennewick Man is housed, notes that DNA analysis has become one of the most powerful tools for the study of the ancient world. Of Kennewick Man, he believes this is yet another case where genetics are really revolutionizing the way we think about ancestry and calling into question older scientific methods that rely on looking at the shape of bones. (2)

On January 18th, the Washington Times announced that documents obtained through the federal Freedom of Information Act say preliminary results point to a Native-American heritage for the Kennewick Man. Professor Eske Willerslev’s Danish lab is a world leader in ancient DNA analysis where last year the 12,600 year old Anzick boy from Montana was discovered to be a direct ancestor of modern Native Americans and a descendant of people from Beringia.

Willerslev’s research teams found that Native American ancestors coming in from Siberia split into two groups. One group were ancestors to the Native Americans presently living in Canada, and the other, represented by the Clovis boy, were ancestors to virtually all Native Americans in South America and Mexico.  After the DNA studies, Willerslev joined tribal members as they reinterred the boy’s bones near the spot where he was discovered. 

The U.S. Corps of Engineers owns the Columbia River Shoreline through the Tri-Cities, so it claimed ownership of the Kennewick Man skeleton and tried to send it to the area’s Indian tribes under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. Eight anthropologists led by Smithsonian’s curator Douglas Owsley were interested in potential science contributions and contested saying that the skeleton could not be linked to any specific tribe.

Anthropologist Richard Jantz of the University of Tennessee was Douglas Owsley’s inspiration to enter archaeology. For 25 years, they have been creating a database together while they analyzed Native American remains. Owsley shares with NOVA, “Our cranial measurements allow us to trace population movements and draw conclusions about tribal affiliation. Kennewick Man’s description didn’t fit any group.”

European features of the skull were said to conclude that the ancestry of Kennewick Man might be quite different from that of other documented Paleoindian discoveries and a decontextualized, biological race was ascribed to the skull based on qualitative and somewhat subjective features. 

Of the few securely-dated, well-preserved Paleo-American skeletons some have been reburied—10,675-year-old female (Buhla) found near Buhl, Idaho, and an 8,000-year-old skeleton found in Hourglass Cave in the Colorado Rockies.  The Buhla skeleton had heavy wear patterns on her teeth that that was caused by sand or grit, wear that would be consistent with the use of stone grinding or pounding. No genetic testing was done, and there is disagreement concerning the morphology of the skull. Anthropologist Todd Fenton of Michigan State University indicated that the skull’s morphology is similar to that of American Indian and East Asian populations, while according to anthropologist Richard Jantz, “She doesn’t fit into any modern group but is most similar to today’s Polynesians.”

The skull poorly reflects specific regional or ethnic identification, yet Chatters boldly speculated and reported of the Kennewick Man, “On the physical characteristics alone, he could fit on the streets of Stockholm without causing any kind of notice” (Preston 1997:73).

Everything I was told about him suggested that Kennewick Man did not have physical features characteristic of Native Americans. Douglas Owsley(21)

Until the latest DNA testing, it would have been very difficult to attempt to attribute identity to the few specimens using reference populations that very metrically, temporally, and geographically. These studies testify to the biological heterogenity in all populations.  Sophisticated methodologies, as in the case of Steele and Powell, still tell us nearly nothing about ethnicity, “race” identity, or cultural affiliation.

More recent discoveries of early human remains in North America, particularly those of Kennewick Man  from Washington state, revive interest in Gordon Creek and other well-established and -documented examples.  Gordon Creek has been one of the earliest reported and best documented Paleoindian burial sites which proved to be a woman of approximately 25-30 years of age with a fairly complete skeleton, buried with an assemblage of artifactual remains and a distinctive mortuary practice, and of good provenience.

Turner (1992, 1997) has referred to the dentition of Gordon Creek Woman as “Sinodont,” suggesting similarities to populations from northeast Asia. In comparing known Paleoindian remains with other archaeological populations from North America and elsewhere, Steele and Powell locate all of the early remains as specifically Paleoindian, but suggest through comparisons of cranial measurements, using principal components analysis and other tests, that “where Paleoindians…differed from modern northern Asians, they tended to structurally resemble southern Asian and European populations” (22, 1994:141).

Eske Willerslev  explains in the above video, “Anzick Burial Site Press Conference” held at the Montana Historical Society, “The indigenous people believed from their oral teachings that they are the first peoples—they turned out to be right.”(Eske Willerslev, 15; 30:54)

Oral and non-verbal formulations cannot be literally read as direct accounts, but they can show how indigenous societies have experienced history and the way in which they continue to make sense out of contradictory historical processes.

From a scientific standpoint, Eske notes, it was completely up in the air at the start of the DNA analysis. In 2010 when he had done the first ancient genome on the oldest human remains from Greenland the individual turned out not to be directly ancestral to present-day human people. The remains had been from a group of people who had died out and left no descendants.

Shane Doyle became the liaison between Montana tribes and an international team of scientists who conducted a genetic study on the Anzick boy remains.  These are the oldest human remains found in North America and the only Late Pleistocene human form a Clovis burial site.

A press release from Nature said the team of scientists reported that the boy whose skeletal fragments were discovered near Wilsall,  Montana, in association with dozens of ochre-covered stone tools, belonged to a population from which many contemporary Native Americans descended and is closely related to all indigenous American populations.

“I was brought on this team last September when Eske arrived from Copenhagen and I was asked by archaeologist Larry Lahren to meet Eske at the site and I hadn’t really known what the news was about until that day so it was a surprise to me and very overwhelming at the time.” Shane Doyle (18:13 video above)

After the DNA studies, Willerslev joined tribal members as they reinterred the boy’s bones near the spot where he was discovered.

Last February, Montana State University Native American Studies Professor Shane Doyle spoke at the Museum of the Rockies about his work with Eske Willerslev and the team from the University of Copenhagen as tribal liaison and consultant.  Larry Lahren, a Livingston-based archaeologist involved at the Anzick Boy site for the past 46 years, helped with the presentation and provided the slides.(15)

Although the scientific discoveries are important, Doyle points out that, even more so, the cultural discoveries are very important since the Anzick boy was buried with about 120 of the sharpened stones tools for which the Clovis people are known. Some of these tools are hundreds of years older than the young child, indicating they were heirlooms given to the boy in death. Noting the young age of the Anzick Boy, two years, Doyle explained that the Montana tribes desired a re-burial.

“We produced a genome of this ancient child and it’s actually the first ancient genome that has been produced to a.. higher quality… especially where the DNA is extremely poor… it was a great challenge.  The genome shows without any doubt that the child is closely related to Native American groups… than to any other group of human beings in the world.  It also shows that the extended family of this child is the direct ancestor of many Native Americans we find today–roughly 80%… confirms that Native Americans are directly descending from the first peoples to be on this continent and it also rejects other scientific theories that have been out there that the first humans in the Americas came from Europe across the Atlantic, or.. other branches of Asians coming in and going extinct in the Americas…  Even though the Clovis culture at some point disappeared the humans continued until the present day.” Eske Willerslev (8:15-11:80)

Watching the people and institutions for 46 years at the Anzick site, Larry Lahren questions “Do colonial attitudes and the ‘need to know’ override ethics, law, and respect for Native American values in the 21st century?” Lahren was asked to be a co-author of an article that appeared in Nature on February 13, 2014, he was also asked if he could arrange for Native consultation in Montana after the studies where completed in order to give the project his blessing, but he declined disapproving of the order in which the consultations were taking place believing that the consultations should have taken place before the scientific studies.

Lahren notes in the April 2014 Montana Pioneer, along with a detailed list of false news reports and spin applied, that two of the article’s co-authors of the Nature article were members of Friends of America’s Past which has an adversarial relationship with Plateau Tribes in the Kennewick Man litigation. They also had been involved in the political sabotaging of HB165, which became the Montana Repatriation Act in 2001.

The U.S. Corps of Engineers owns the Columbia River Shoreline through the Tri-Cities, so it claimed ownership of the Kennewick Man skeleton and tried to send it to the area’s Indian tribes under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. Eight anthropologists led by Smithsonian’s curator Douglas Owsley were interested in potential science contributions and contested saying that the skeleton could not be linked to any specific tribe.

The Condederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Yakama Indian Nation, the Nez Perce Tribe, and the Colville and Warm Springs nations fought the anthropologists in court. They believed that scientific examinations disrespected Native American beliefs about the sanctity of their dead.

As tribes begin to take on responsibilities mandated by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (amended in 1992), and with the passage of NAGPRA in 1990, some anthropologists are becoming more aware of the impact they are having on the personal lives of those they study and, rather than imposing their own view, they are beginning to consult the Native Americans and work with them.

In November of 2004, the National Museum of the American Indian, the 18th Smithsonian museum, opened its doors to the public.  The museum incorporates a Native viewpoint in everything it does as it recognizes and affirms the historical and contemporary culture and cultural achievements of the Natives of the Western Hemisphere.  Recently, in an interview series through the museum, “Meet Native America,” Brian Cladoosby shares his life story and achievements as the current chairman of the Swinomish Tribal Community and president of the National Congress of the American Indians (NCAI).

I had the opportunity to listen to some of the best tribal speakers in our community growing up. We are an oral tradition culture, and listening to public speakers was very valuable to me. Brian Cladoosby

Cladoosby, president of the Association of Washington Tribes, Executive Board member of the Washington Gaming Association, and past President of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, is continually active in tribal and state politics.  He is the Co-speaker of the Coast Salish Gathering, which comprises British Columbia First Nations and Western Washington Tribes.

Cladoosby has also been instrumental in the domestic and international emergence of the northwest Indian country salmon and seafood industry. Swinomish Fish Company buys and sells seafood products from tribal, national and international companies, continuing the “buy and sell native” motto of Indian country. The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community members have a strong economic development plan that supports a way of life for today and future generations.

With 10,000 years of knowledge of our ancestral waters behind us, our dedication and sense of responsibility towards managing and protecting the bounty of the Salish Sea and water resources beyond it is just as vital to our heritage today as it was so many years ago. Swinomish Fish Company

The World Archaeological Congress (WAC) involvement with non-archaeologists in its ethics code has taken steps to share control with indigenous peoples. The WAC code even puts the development of research into indigenous hands. For example, WAC has eight indigenous representatives on its executive committee, and the ethics code demands that WAC members work to seek representation for indigenous peoples in agencies funding or authorizing research to be certain that their views are considered as critically important in setting research standards, questions, priorities, and goals. Archaeologists share their research questions with indigenous peoples, who then become more familiar with archaeological thinking. 


Douglas Owsley Chooses to Omit Peer-Review on Kennewick Man Research


  1. Sandy Doughton, “First DNA Tests Say Kennewick Man Was Native American,” Washington Times, Sunday, January, 18, 2015.
  2. Sandy Doughton,“Kennewick Man’s DNA Likely That of a Native,” Seattle Times, 1/20/15.
  3. Ewen Callaway, Ancient Genome Stirs Ethics Debate, Nature.com; 2/14/14.
  4. Joe Watkins, “Redlining Archaeology,” Archaeological Institute of America; 1999.
  5. Clement W. Meighan, “Buying American Archaeology,” Archaeology Institute of America; 1999.
  6. Anzick Boy Links Prehistory and Present: Reveals Ancient Ancestry of Native Americans;” The Montana Pioneer, 3/8/14.
  7. Comments From the Sentencing Hearing of William Stevens; Native Americans and Archaeologists, 2/26/99, Archaeology Archive.org.
  8. Larry J. Zimmerman, “Sharing Control of the Past,” Native Americans and Archaeologists, 2/26/99, Archaeology Institute of America.
  9. Larry Lahren, PH.d, “Anzick Researchers Snub State and Native Tribes,” The Montana Pioneer, April 2014 Archived Stories.
  10. Larry Lahren, “What do we Owe the Clovis Child?”, Montana’s Last Best News, 3/30/14.
  11. Larry Lahren, “Montana’s Clovis Child: Law, Ethics, and Respect.
  12. John Stang, “Archaeologist Challenges Smithsonian Over Kennewick Man.”
  13. Associated Press, “First DNA Tests Say Kennewick Man Was Native American,” 1/2015 ;Oregon Live.com.
  14. Shane Doyle on the Indigenous Perspective of the Anzick Child, Extreme History Project, YouTube; 2/21/14.
  15. Anzick Burial Site Press Conference, Montana Historical Society; Extreme History Project, YouTube; 2/12/12.
  16. Mitchell Museum of the American Indian, 3001 Central Street, Evanston, IL, 60201.
  17. Debbie Anne Doyle, “National Museum of the Indian Opens in Washington, D.C,” November 2004.
  18. National Museum of the American Indian
  19. Dennis Zotigh, “Brian Cladoosby: NMAI’s Meet Native Ameirca Series;” Indian Country, 2/1/5.
  20. John Stang, “Kennewick Man’s Secrets Still Mostly Secret,” 7/12/2009, Seattlepi.com.
  21. Douglas W. Owsley, “Claims For the Remains,” Mysteries of the Americas, NOVA Online.
  22. Alan Sweedlund and Anderson Duane, “Gordon Creek Woman Meets Kennewick Man: New Interpretations and Protocols Regarding The Peopling of the Americas,” American Intiquity, Oct 1999, v64 i4 p. 569-576.


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