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Back In The Ground, Kennewick Man Will Be Lost To Science

The Northwest tribes feel a sense of completion knowing Kennewick Man’s ancient bones will rest again in the Earth. That’s because President Obama recently signed a law giving them control of the 9,000-year-old remains.

But scientists say they are losing a one-of-a-kind storyteller forever.

Anthropologist Jim Chatters remembers the first time he ever laid eyes on Kennewick Man.

“Looking at the top of his skull in a plastic bucket in the front yard of my house,” he said.

After two students found the skull, the county coroner brought it to Chatters, who later found most of the rest of the skeleton in the shallows of the Columbia River.

Chatters said it was hard to interpret at first. Kennewick Man’s skull was shaped differently from old Native American remains, but his teeth were worn down to the nubs.

Then Chatters sent off a bone fragment from Kennewick Man to be carbon dated.

“When the lab technician called, she asked if I was sitting down,” Chatters recalled. “I said, ‘Nah, just tell me what the result is.’ She said, ‘8,400 radiocarbon years.’”

“And, that’s when I sat down,” he said.

It turns out Kennewick Man’s skeleton was about 9,000 years old.

Chatters has been criticized over the years -- some of his early findings led others to claim that Kennewick Man was Caucasian. Or that he had looked like actor Patrick Stewart.

But, 20 years later, Chatters is still writing new scientific papers about Kennewick Man.

“It’s an evolving story, as all scientific investigation is,” he said. “We never have the full answer, never have the final answer on anything.”

Top scientists from across the United States fought to study Kennewick Man in court for 10 years. So long, that one scientist didn't live long enough to see the group’s victory in 2002 -- when the court said that Kennewick Man wasn’t related to living tribes.

One of those scientists who fought in court is well-known anthropologist Richard Jantz. He said Kennewick Man is rare -- one of about 10 ancient skeletons from the Americas.

“Normally, we have a sample of 50 or 100,” Jantz said. “Or some number bigger than 1.”

Jantz meant that it’s hard to learn much about a population from just one unique individual. Was he an outlier or the norm?

Losing Kennewick Man means future scientists won’t have him to compare against other ancient remains.

“If Kennewick Man’s ultimate status is to be understood, we need to have more study,” Jantz said. “It is the case that this one DNA study did not settle it.”

What prompted Kennewick Man’s return was a recent DNA result linking the bones back to living Native American tribes. Democratic Senator Patty Murray then sponsored a successful bill to rebury Kennewick Man.

Scientists saw that as an end run around the law that seeks to balance science and Native American rights. But Jantz, now retired, said he’s tired of fighting.

“It’s regrettable that science is so heavily politicized and not viewed for what it can tell us about ourselves,” he said.

Kennewick Man’s bones are some of the most studied remains in the world. Jim Chatters can’t help but have empathy for him.

“You get a sense of the individual and you kind of develop a sense of connection to the person,” he said.

Both these scientists and Native American tribes want to change the laws about ancient remains. The fight about Kennewick Man’s bones isn’t over even as he returns to the earth.

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.