Friends of America's Past

The Kennewick Man Case | News & Comment

Alert: Burke Museum's Kennewick Lectures are Premature

On October 22 and 23, 1999, the National Park Service and the Burke Museum at the University of Washington are offering a public lecture series on the Kennewick Man skeleton. Scientists are suing for the right of all scientists to study this ancient skeleton, but for the past three years Federal agencies (Department of Justice, Department of Interior, Army Corps of Engineers) have denied access by anyone but their own appointed scientists. In the fall of 1998, the Court approved the Burke Museum to act as a neutral facility to house the Kennewick Man skeleton until the lawsuit is resolved and a decision is made about the disposition of the remains.

Friends of America's Past is concerned about the premature nature of the proposed lectures. Only limited study has been conducted, and the Department of Interior has not released the actual scientific reports. No scientific peer review has been allowed. The results and interpretation of the limited study are unverified by other scientists, a basic step in scientific inquiry. The results of C14 tests are due in November. The Court has directed the government to resolve their position on the age of the skeleton and its possible cultural affiliation by March 24, 2000. With so few facts established about the Kennewick Man skeleton, and critical questions yet to be answered, we are concerned that the proposed lectures may not meet unbiased educational objectives. We feel the public should be aware of the limitations in the information presented.

Government officials have been quoted in the media as concluding that the Kennewick Man was intentionally buried. They cite the presence of red ochre and the condition of the skeleton as evidence for this conclusion. However, this evidence is considered ambiguous by other scientists. The government's study team was the first to state that red ochre is present. Scientists on the government's curation team assessed the condition of the skeleton on two occasions (November 1997 and October 1998) and made no mention of it. The presence of red ochre must be established with chemical tests, before it is presented to the public as a fact. Of additional concern is the lack of consideration that its presence may be due to other cultural practices. Red ochre is known to have been used in many places around the world for a variety of reasons. Red ochre alone is not evidence of intentional burial. Further, that a skeleton is complete is not evidence of a burial. Remains may be preserved completely when sealed by a mudslide or other natural event.

The lecture series includes representatives invited to express government and Native American viewpoints, but no similar invitation was extended to plaintiffs (scientists) nor their legal counsel. The neutrality of the Burke Museum came into question with the inclusion of Dr. Julie Stein, a member of the Burke Museum staff, on the government's study team. Now that they are hosting public lectures, is it not reasonable to expect balance in the views offered?

We understand this lecture series will be developed into a travelling exhibit to meet requests from the educational community. We want to alert all teachers and the general public about the premature nature and potential bias of the material presented under the guise of educational tools.

You can help in at least three ways:

  1. Request information from the Burke Museum, and then let them know if you have concerns about the objectivity and accuracy of their educational material.
  2. Attend the lectures and ask questions.
  3. Alert others to the potential bias of this event.

Friends of America's Past is a nonprofit science-advocacy organization dedicated to advancing the rights of all Americans to understand the past. For more information about Friends of America's Past, write to us at 7410 S.W. Oleson Rd. Suite 202, Portland, OR. 97223 or visit our website at

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