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Kennewick Man
Experts collaborated to create a bust showing how Kennewick Man, also known as the Ancient One, may have looked. (Sculpted bust by StudioEIS; forensic facial reconstruction by sculptor Amanda Danning; photograph by Brittany Tatchell / Smithsonian)

After more than 20 years, one of anthropology’s most contentious cases was closed over the weekend with the reburial of the 9,000-year-old remains of Kennewick Man, now better known as the Ancient One.

More than 200 people, including members of five Native American tribes, gathered at an undisclosed site on the Columbia River Plateau early Saturday to bury the remains in accordance with centuries-old funerary rituals, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation said in a news release.

“This is a big day, and our people have come to witness and honor our ancestor,” said Armand Minthorn, a member of the Umatilla tribes’ board of trustees and Longhouse leader. “We continue to practice our beliefs and laws as our Creator has given us since time immemorial.”

The reburial marks the final chapter in a saga that began in 1996, when two college students spotted the Ancient One’s skeleton along the banks of the Columbia River near Kennewick, Wash. Experts recovered and studied the remains, determining that they were roughly 9,000 years old.

Archaeologists initially said the proportions of the skull were a closer match for Europeans than for Native Americans, setting off a years-long debate over the Ancient One’s origins.

Five Pacific Northwest tribes pressed the Army Corps of Engineers, which had jurisdiction over the bones, to hand them over for repatriation in accordance with federal law. However, a group of scientists sued to block the handover, arguing that the skeleton was not associated with a present-day tribe.

Federal judges sided with the scientists, and the 380 bones and bone fragments were made available for study. Once the studies were complete, the corps had the remains locked away at Seattle’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture.

Kennewick Man / Ancient One
Kari Bruwelheide and Douglas Owsley, forensic anthropologists at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, examine the Ancient One’s remains during a study period in 2005-2006. (Smithsonian Institution Photo / Chip Clark)

The big break in the case came in 2015, when scientists announced that DNA extracted from a hand bone was a relatively close match to an individual from the Colville confederation, one of the five tribes that originally filed suit. (The others are the Umatilla, Yakama, Nez Perce and Wanapum.)

Further studies confirmed that the skeleton’s characteristics were in the proper range for Native Americans, leading to a definitive ruling from the Army Corps of Engineers. Late last year, federal legislation cleared the way for handing over the remains.

Representatives of the five tribes, the Army Corps of Engineers and state officials gathered at the Burke Museum on Friday for the formal handover. The remains, including a stone spear point that was found embedded in the Ancient One’s pelvis, were driven in a caravan for an overnight stop in Richland, Wash., according to a Seattle Times account.

The reburial site took place the next morning. The tribes have said the location will remain undisclosed to guard against the possibility of future desecration.

Gathering of tribes
Tribal leaders gather at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum on Feb. 17 in advance of the handover of the Ancient One’s remains. (Photo courtesy of Washington Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation)
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