Friends of America's Past

The Kennewick Man Case | Discovery Site

The Geology of the Discovery Site: Important issues are still unresolved

The plaintiffs' Sixth Status Report to the Court repeated an urgent plea for the need permission for further study of the discovery site of the Kennewick Man skeleton. We have included this summary from the report of the outstanding issues. Dr. Thomas Stafford's full report is also available for those of you who want full details.

Discovery site issues

Investigations of the discovery site of the Kennewick skeleton continues to be stymied. Dr. Huckleberry's research team has not received a permit for the site study they proposed more than 16 months ago.

Dr. Gary Huckleberry's team is now seeking permission to commence controlled and phased test excavations on or about February 1, 1999 on the terrace adjacent to the area buried by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Dr. Thomas Stafford, a co-investigator of the Huckleberry research team, has provided the Army Corps with a detailed analysis of the data obtained as a result of the limited studies conducted by the Army Corps in October and December 1997.

Important points of Dr. Stafford's analysis include the following:

Unresolved Issues

The October and December 1997 site studies did not resolved issues important for interpretation of the site's geology and for understanding the origins of depositional history and preservation of the skeleton. Unresolved issues include

  1. whether the skeleton represents a natural or intentional burial

  2. whether there were prehistoric human occupations at the site that might provide data for establishing the skeleton's cultural affiliations

  3. what was the skeleton's original stratigraphic location in the site.

Prospects for Sediment Analysis

While defendants suggest that analysis of sediments adhering to the skeleton can resolved questions of whether it represents a natural or intentional burial, Dr. Stafford disagrees. He believes the skeleton's origins must first be confidently tied to a specific sedimentary stratum whose geologic age and depositional history are clearly established.

Problems with Site Dating

An accurate chronology of the site has not been established. Although radiocarbon measurements were obtained by the Army Corps' study team on four sediment samples and two freshwater mollusk shells, methodological and other considerations make these dates unreliable in the absence of further confirmatory data. The only reliable geologic age currently available for the site is a bed of volcanic ash identified as Mazama Ash. However, the relationship of this ash bed to the hypothesized origin point of the skeleton has not been adequately established.

Human Occupation of the Site

No systematic effort was made during the Army Corps' December 1997 site study to investigate for evidence of past human occupations of the site. There is no apparent connection between artifacts found during the December 1997 site study and the skeleton.

Impact of Government Restrictions

Restrictions imposed by the government affected the quantity and quality of the data obtained during the December 1997 site study. As a result of such restrictions, only 1.7% of the shoreline and only 0.0001% of the site's sediment volume could be examined. Such a small samples does not give a reliable picture of the potential variability of strata of the site.

Need for Further Site Testing

Further testing of the site is essential for correct interpretation of the site and to understand the skeleton's origin and depositional history. The Army Corps' study team agrees that further study of the site is warranted. The test excavations proposed by the Huckleberry research team would affect less than 0.0004% of the testable area of the terrace which would be an inconsequential amount of disturbance in comparison to the damage caused by the defendant's burial project.

Urgency of Testing

Further testing of the site should be conducted as soon as possible since the debris used by the Army Corps to cover the site will progressively degrade the chemical and physical integrity of the site's sediments as the debris decays and as tree roots penetrate deeper into the sediments. (P: Link to pictures of site we posted earlier).

Importance of Data Confirmation

It is a fundamental principal of science that interpretations of data cannot be accepted as valid unless the data used in the interpretations are subject to testing by other investigators. If further testing at the Kennewick Man site is not allowed, the reliability of the data obtained during the December 1997 Site study will remain questionable. Such testing cannot be limited to one small group of investigators, but must include multiple scientists who are independent of one another.

Return to Discovery Site