navigation bar Houghton Mifflin Social Studies United States History: Early Years
feature logo Weekly Reader ® Current Events

Who Was Kennewick Man?

On a July day in 1996, Will Thomas waded into the Columbia River near Kennewick, Washington. As he did, he stubbed his foot on something buried in the mud. At first Thomas thought it was a rock. When he stooped to see what it was, he was shocked at what he found. He had stumbled on a human skull.

Thomas called the local police. The police roped off the area as a crime scene after finding the rest of the skeleton.

Investigators began to ask questions. Whose bones were they? What was the skeleton doing in the river? How did the victim die?

The answers shocked almost everyone. Scientists found that the bones belonged to a man who lived 9,200 years ago. Scientists named him Kennewick Man. The skeleton is one of the oldest ever found in North America.

“Kennewick Man is a very complete skeleton,” said Doug Owsley from the Smithsonian Institution. “It's very well-preserved, and it can tell us a lot.”

Scientists could hardly wait to study the bones more completely. They hoped that Kennewick Man could help them understand how and when humans first came to North America.

Several American Indian nations were concerned about Kennewick Man. They claimed him as an ancestor. They asked a judge for permission to rebury the bones as part of their religious tradition. After a long legal battle, the judge ruled against the American Indian nations.

Mystery Man

Scientists say Kennewick Man died when he was about 45 years old. Before he died, he was not in very good health. He was living with a spear point jammed in his hip. He also had a crushed chest and a left arm he could not use.

A researcher named Jim Chatters said, “he [had] been injured a great many times.”

Scientists made a digital image of what Kennewick Man might have looked like by using a cast of the skull and a 3-D computer program. Scientists used a system of markers and mathematical formulas to create his flesh, nose, and other features. Scientists then added facial hair and skin tone.

Challenging an Old Theory

Some researchers say Kennewick Man's features resemble those of Polynesians and other people who lived in southern Asia. If that is true, then Kennewick Man's skull suggests that different peoples migrated to the Americas over a long period.

That idea challenges the theory that the first Americans came only from northern Asia to North America, crossing the Beringia land bridge. In the last decade, scientists have found evidence that the first Americans may have come from Europe, China, Japan, the South Pacific, and other regions.