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Kennewick Man and the Evolutionary Origins of the Nation



This article addresses the recent attempts to integrate evolutionary history in the US national narrative. Focussing on the cultural, legal, and scientific controversy over Kennewick Man, the ancient human remains discovered in Washington state in 1996, the article explores the narrative politics of American national belonging. Through a popular historical novel on Kennewick Man's life, the article further theorizes nostalgia as a narrative tool in imagining the evolutionary origins of the nation. The article argues that nostalgia produces a temporal dynamic that bridges the gap between national history and global prehistory, and that this dynamic is reinforced through cultural ideas of genetic knowledge. At the same time, prehistoric nostalgia renders problematic ideas of ethnic difference largely invisible.



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1 Cann, Rebecca L., Stoneking, Mark, and Wilson, Allan C., “Mitochondrial DNA and Human Evolution,” Nature, 325 (1987), 3136; M'charek, Amade, The Human Genome Diversity Project: An Ethnography of Scientific Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

2 See, for example, Pálsson, Gísli and Rabinow, Paul, “Iceland: The Case of a National Human Genome Project,” Anthropology Today, 15, 5 (1999), 1418; Thacker, Eugene, The Global Genome: Biotechnology, Politics, and Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 133–72; Hinterberger, Amy, “Investing in Life, Investing in Difference: Nations, Populations and Genomes,” Theory, Culture and Society, 29, 3 (2012), 7293.

3 For example, van Dijck, José depicts narrative as “a mode of cognition” that masks its own status “as an interpretive framework” in Imagenation: Popular Images of Genetics (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1998), 15. Similarly, Judith Roof argues that narrative strives toward “the phantom of a whole” while erasing the discursive processes through which the very idea of coherence and continuity is produced. See Roof, 's Come as You Are: Sexuality and Narrative (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), xv.

4 See Bhabha, Homi, ed., Nation and Narration (New York: Routledge, 1990); Pease, Donald E., “National Narratives, Postnational Narration,” Modern Fiction Studies, 43 (1997), 123; or Anderson, Benedict's seminal Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, 2nd rev. edn (London: Verso, 2006).

5 Pease, 4.

6 See Kolodny, Annette, “Fictions of American Prehistory: Indians, Archeology, and National Origins Myths,” American Literature, 75 (2003), 693721.

7 See Kolodny, or Howey, Meghan C. L., “The Question Which Has Puzzled, and Still Puzzles,” American Indian Quarterly, 34 (2010), 435–74.

8 See Howey, 437.

9 Mayor, Adrienne, Fossil Legends of the First Americans (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).

10 Dillehay, Thomas D., Settlement of the Americas: A New Prehistory (New York: Basic Books, 2000); Jablonski, Nina G., ed., The First Americans: The Pleistocene Colonization of the New World (San Francisco: California Academy of Sciences, 2002).

11 Mitochondria (inherited from the mother) and Y-chromosomes (passed from father to son) can be used as molecular clocks to evaluate the divergence of early human populations. See, for example, Eshleman, Jason A., Malhi, Ripan S., and Smith, David Glenn, “Mitochondrial DNA Studies of Native Americans: Conceptions and Misconceptions of the Population Prehistory of the Americas,” Evolutionary Anthropology, 12 (2003), 718; or Fagundes, Nelson J. R. et al. “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 (2008), 583–92.

12 See, for example, Cavalli-Sforza, Luigi Luca, Genes, Peoples, and Languages, trans. Seielstad, Mark (New York: North Point Press, 2000); or Gould, Stephen Jay, The Mismeasure of Man, 2nd rev. edn (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996).

13 Hinterberger, “Investing in Life, Investing in Difference”; Reardon, Jenny, “Race without Salvation,” in Koenig, Barbara A., Lee, Sandra Soo-Jin, and Richardson, Sarah, eds., Revisiting Race in a Genomic Age (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2008), 304–19.

14 See Kahn, Jonathan, Race in a Bottle: The Story of BiDil and Racialized Medicine in a Post-Genomic Age (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013); Kahn, , “What's the Use of Race in Presenting Forensic DNA Evidence in Court?”, in Whitmarsh, Ian and Jones, David S., eds., What's the Use of Race? Modern Governance and the Biology of Difference (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010), 2748; Pamela Sakar, “Forensic DNA Phenotyping: Reinforcing Race in Law Enforcement,” in ibid., 49–61.

15 Wald, Priscilla, “Cells, Genes, and Stories: HeLa's Journey from Labs to Literature,” in Wailoo, Keith, Nelson, Alondra, and Lee, Catherine, eds., Genetics and the Unsettled Past: The Collision of DNA, Race, and History (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2012), 247–65; Reardon, Jenny and TallBear, Kim, “‘Your DNA Is Our History’: Genomics, Anthropology, and the Construction of Whiteness as Property,” Current Anthropology, 53 (2012), S233–45. See also Thomas, David Hurst, Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity (New York: Basic Books, 2000); and Holloway, Karla F. C., Private Bodies, Public Texts: Race, Gender, and a Cultural Bioethics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).

16 David Thomas Hurst observes that with NAGPRA, “archaeologists had lost their monopoly on the deep American past. For the first time, Native American people were bona fide stakeholders in the national narrative, and they demanded to be heard.” See Hurst, , “The Dead Have No Rights?” in Burke, Heather, Smith, Claire, Lippert, Dorothy, Watkins, Joe, and Zimmerman, Larry, eds., Kennewick Man: Perspectives on the Ancient One (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2008), 919.

17 The DOI scientists' reports and Babbitt's decision are available on the National Park Service website at

18 “Kennewick Man Ruling Benefits All,” editorial, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 16 Sept. 2002,, accessed 5 April 2011.

19 Stang, John, “Kennewick Man's Secrets Still Mostly Secret,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 12 July 2009,, accessed 5 April 2011; Murphy, Kim, “Kennewick Man: Scientists Unravel 9,300-year-old Skeleton's Past,” Los Angeles Times, 11 Oct. 2012,, accessed 25 Jan. 2013.

20 Egan, Timothy, “Tribe Stops Study of Bones That Challenge History,” New York Times, 30 Sept. 1996,, accessed 4 Nov. 2012.

21 Ann M. Kakaliouras, “Kennewick Man: A Virtual Political Object ‘Under Construction’,” in Burke et al., 88–93.

22 James D. Nason provides a critique of this assumption in the context of the trial in “Owning Indians: NAGPRA Redux,” in Burke et al., 103–27.

23 Kluger, Jeffrey, “The Legal Battle: Archaeology: Who Should Own the Bones?Time, 5 March 2006,,9171,1169901,00.html, accessed 5 April 2011.

24 Armand Minthorn, “Human Remains Should Be Reburied,” in Burke et al., 42–3, 42.

25 Ibid., 43.

26 Smith, Carol, “Kennewick Man Gives Up Secrets,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 14 July 2005,, accessed 5 April 2011.

27 See Steve Russell, “Law and Bones and What the Meaning of ‘Is' Is”, in Burke et al., 73–82, 78.

28 Wilford, John Noble, “Archaeology and Ancestry Clash over Skeleton,” New York Times, 9 Nov. 1999,, accessed 5 April 2011.

29 Rothstein, Edward, “Protection for Indian Patrimony That Leads to a Paradox,” New York Times, 29 March 2006,, accessed 5 Apr. 2011.

30 See, for example, Donald Sampson, “Ancient One/Kennewick Man: (Former) Tribal Chair Questions Scientists' Motives and Credibility,” in Burke et al., 40–41.

31 Chatters, James C., Ancient Encounters: Kennewick Man and the First Americans (New York: Touchstone, 2002).

32 Ibid., 269.

33 Ibid., 79.

34 Ibid., 78.

35 Boym, Svetlana, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001); Muller, Adam, “Notes toward a Theory of Nostalgia: Childhood and the Evocation of the Past in Two European ‘Heritage’ Films,” New Literary History, 37 (2007), 739–60; Smith, Kimberly K., “Mere Nostalgia: Notes on a Progressive Paratheory,” Rhetoric and Public Affairs, 3 (2000), 505–27.

36 Muller, 739.

37 Boym, xvi.

38 Ibid., xvi.

39 K. Smith, 509.

40 Attewell, Nadine, “‘Bouncy Little Tunes’: Nostalgia, Sentimentality, and Narrative in Gravity's Rainbow,” Contemporary Literature, 45 (2004), 22–48, 44.

41 Ibid., 23.

42 Gear, Kathleen O'Neal and Gear, W. Michael, People of the Raven (New York: Tor, 2005), 7.

43 Ibid., 11.

44 Ibid., 190.

45 Feminist scholars in particular have critiqued narratives that bring together two mutually complementary lovers and thus mask the ideological tensions the narrative may have raised. For classic critiques, see DuPlessis's, Rachel BlauWriting beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985); or de Lauretis, Teresa's Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984). See also Roof, Come as You Are; Pearce, Lynne and Stacey, Jackie, eds., Romance Revisited (New York: New York University Press, 1995); or my article “Mutations of Romance: Evolution, Infidelity, and Narrative,” Modern Fiction Studies, 56 (2010), 592–613.

46 O'Neal Gear and Gear, 535, emphasis original.

47 Edelman, Lee, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).

48 Chatters, Ancient Encounters, 49.

49 Egan, Timothy, “Expert Panel Recasts Origin of Fossil Man in Northwest,” New York Times, 16 Oct. 1999,, accessed 5 April 2011.

50 Lemonick, Michael D. and Dorfman, Andrea, “Who Were the First North Americans?Time, 5 March 2006,,9171,1169905,00.html, accessed 4 Nov. 2012.

51 Murphy, “Kennewick Man.”

52 TallBear, Kimberly, “DNA, Blood, and Racializing the Tribe,” Wicazo Sa Review, 18, 1 (2003), 81107. See also TallBear's critique of the use of genetic testing to resolve tribal affiliation in “ In Search of Native American Race and Tribe,” in Koenig, Lee, and Richardson, 235–52.

53 Clayton, Jay, “Genome Time,” in Newman, Karen, Clayton, Jay, and Hirsch, Marianne, eds., Time and the Literary (New York: Routledge, 2002), 31–59, 33.

54 Ibid., 35.

55 Wald, Priscilla, “Future Perfect: Grammar, Genes, and Geography,” New Literary History, 31 (2000), 681–708, 698.

56 Ibid., 698–99.

This research was funded by the Kone Foundation and the Academy of Finland. An early version of the paper was presented at the Memory, Mediation, Remediation conference at Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada, in April 2011. The author would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for the journal for insightful and helpful comments.


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