It’s official: ‘Ancient One’ was Native American

Image: 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)

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has just ruled that an 8,500-year-old set of skeletal remains known as Kennewick Man or the Ancient One belonged to a Native American tribe, based on DNA tests that came out nearly a year ago.

It took that long for experts to weigh the genetic evidence, plus other anatomical evidence that has been the focus of a 20-year-long legal tug of war. Earlier this month, a trio of scientists from the University of Chicago issued a technical report declaring that the DNA findings published last June in Nature were sound.

The remains were found on the banks of the Columbia River near Kennewick, Wash., in 1996. Five Pacific Northwest tribes pressed the Army Corps of Engineers, which has jurisdiction over the bones, to hand them over in accordance with a federal law on the repatriation of remains. 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 as a result, the corps retained custody of the skeleton and made it available for study. Now that the studies are finished, the 380 bones and bone fragments are locked away in Seattle at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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