Kennewick Man

Period: Holocene North America - 12,000 - 100 BP
Region: North America
Location: Kennewick - 46.21° North, 119.12° West
Country: United States
mtDNA haplogroups: X2a
Y haplogroups: Q-M3

Inland Salish Basket Inland Salish Basket [19] Kennewick Man Skull Cast of the Kennewick Man Skull [20]

The Paleoindian Cultures of North America:

While humans had expanded across all of Eurasia and Africa by 40,000 years ago, it was not until around 18,000 years ago that they appeared in the Americas. Archaeological evidence suggests that people began to move across a land bridge that connected Siberia to present-day Alaska that exist at the end of the last ice age [1]. This land bridge existed because sea levels were much lower as a result of a large amount of water being stored in the polar ice sheets. The bridge is thought to have existed for tens of thousands of years [2].

The earliest human groups to have reach North America likely followed clear corridors between the ice sheets that covered present-day Canada and the northern United States. There is evidence that they had made it as far as the South American continent by 14,600 years ago [3]. These people would have encountered mammoths on both sides side of the land bridge, but also many new local species such as mastadons and giant sloths [4].

The earliest cultures of North America are little know, as there are very few and quite scattered archaeological sites. By 12,000 years ago, as populations began to increase, more evidence for human activity began to appear. It used to be thought that these early sites were part of a pan-American culture known as the Clovis culture given the uniformity of the artifacts across large distances, although more local varieties have been discovered in recent times [5-6]. These early Native American cultures were defined by large elongated spear points that were used for hunting large game.

The Norwest Plateau Native Americans:

To the east of the coastal mountains in an area spanning form Washington State (United States) into British Columbia (Canada), there were multiple Native American tribes that have inhabited the region for millennia. Often collectively known as the Plateau Native Americans [7], they today consist of the tribes such as the Interior Salish, the Chinook, and the Sahaptin peoples. While there are limited archaeological materials that cover the full extent of the past 10,000 years, there is evidence to suggest that these people lived a hunter-gatherer way of life for thousands of years.

Native American tribes from this region were often engaged in complex trade networks and often shared similar language [7]. It is believed they used root foods as a major part of their diet [8], and evidence suggests that pit cooking was common as far back as 2,500 years ago [9]. They were also known for the complex basket making, which has been found to have been practiced for at least 2,000 years [10]. Salmon harvesting from inland rivers was also common in areas such as the Columbia Basin.

The controversy over Kennewick Man:

The sample in this story was discovered on the banks of the Columbia River in 1996 near the town of Kennewick, in Washington State, United States, and was a nearly complete skeleton of a man carbon-dated to between 8,340–9,200 years old. It was initially though that some artifacts near the skeleton belonged to him, but these were later shown to be more modern [11]. Dubbed Kennewick Man, this skeleton created a major stir within the archaeological community when initial analyses of his cranium showed that he had some features unlike contemporary Native Americans [12]. A legal battle ensued for possession of his remains, as local Native American tribes wished to have his remains returned for reburial [13]. In 2004, a complete analysis of his skeletal morphology concluded that he was not related to the local tribes and suggested he may be more closely-related to Polynesians and Ainu populations [12,14], in addition to having some European-like features.

These early findings were entirely based on analysis of skeletal morphology, and only relatively recently have genetic data been available. In 2015, a DNA tests showed that Kennewick Man was much more closely-related to Native Americans than Polynesians or Ainu, and was particularly close to the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, which are local to the area [11].

Kennwick Man belonged to the X mitochondrial haplogroup, which is a very ancient lineage. It is found across Eurasia but in low proportions in Europe, while at much higher proportions in West Asia and the rest of Asia. Kennewick Man’s specific lineage of X2a is commonly found among Native Americans [15-16]. His Y-chromosome belonged to the Q-M3 lineage, which is a specifically Native American branch of the Q lineage [17], which is found in Native American and Central Asians [18].


  1. Stanford DJ, Bradley BA. 2012. Across Atlantic Ice: the Origin of America's Clovis Culture. University of California Press: Berkeley.
  2. Gladenkov AY, Oleinik A, Marinkovitch L, Baranov KB. 2002. A refined age for the earliest opening of Bering Strait. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 183, 321–328.
  3. Dillehay TD. 1999. The late Pleistocene cultures of South America. Evolutionary Anthropology 7: 206–216.
  4. Waters MR, et al. 2011. Pre-Clovis mastodon hunting 13,800 years ago at the Manis site, Washington. Science 334: 351–353.
  5. Meltzer DA. 1997. Monte Verde and the Pleistocene peopling of the Americas. Science 276: 754–755.
  6. Bellwood, P. 2013. First Migrants: Ancient Migration in Global Perspective Wiley-Blackwell: Malden, MA.
  7. Galm JR. 1994. Prehistoric Trade and Exchange in the Interior Plateau of Northwestern North America. Prehistoric Exchange Systems in North America pp. 275-305.
  8. Mullin WJ, et al. 1997. Macronutrients content of Yellow Glacier Lily and Balsamroot; root vegetables used by indigenous peoples of northwestern North America. Food Research International 30: 769-775.
  9. Pokotylo DL, Froese PD. 1983. Archaeological evidence for prehistoric root gathering on the southern interior plateau of British Columbia: a case study of the Upper Hat Creek Valley. Canadian Journal of Archaeology 7: 127–157.
  10. Wittke KL, Hayden B, Lauwerys M-A. 2004. A Coiled Basket Fragment and Other Organic Artifacts from the Keatley Creek Site, British Columbia. Canadian Journal of Archaeology 28: 144-150.
  11. Rasmussen M, et al. 2015. The ancestry and affiliations of Kennewick Man. Nature 523: 455–458.
  12. Owsley DW, Jantz RL. 2014. Kennewick Man. Texas A&M University Press: College Station.
  13. Bruning SB. 2006. Complex Legal Legacies: The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, Scientific Study, and Kennewick Man. American Antiquity 71: 501-521.
  14. Chatters JC. 2000. The recovery and first analysis of an Early Holocene human skeleton from Kennewick, Washington. American Antiquity 65: 291–316.
  15. Maere Reidla, et al. 2003. Origin and Diffusion of mtDNA Haplogroup X. The American Journal of Human Genetics 73: 1178-1190.
  16. Malhi RS, Smith DG. 2002. Brief communication: Haplogroup X confirmed in prehistoric North America American Journal of Physical Anthropology 119: 84-86.
  17. Jota MS. 2016. New native South American Y chromosome lineages. Journal of Human Genetics 61: 593–603.
  18. Fagundes NJR, Kanitz Ricardo, Eckert R, Valls ACS, Bogo MR, Salzano FM, Smith DG, Silva WA, Zago MA, Ribeiro-Dos-Santos AK, Santos SEB, Petzl-Erler ML, Bonatto SL. 2008. Mitochondrial Population Genomics Supports a Single Pre-Clovis Origin with a Coastal Route for the Peopling of the Americas. American Journal of Human Genetics. 82: 583–592.
  19. Interior Salish Basket:
  20. Cast of Kennewick Man’s Skull: