Nine years after college students stumbled across a human skull on the banks of the Columbia River, Kennewick Man's secrets are about to...
Nine years after college students stumbled across a human skull on the banks of the Columbia River, Kennewick Man’s secrets are about to be unearthed.
A team of 11 top anthropologists will gather in Seattle this week to begin the first comprehensive studies of the skeleton that touched off a bitter struggle between scientists’ quest for knowledge and Native Americans’ reverence for their ancestors.
The researchers have already conducted high-resolution CT scans of the skull and pelvis that will help them learn about the ancient man’s origins and the healed-over spear point embedded in his right hip. Next, they will try to figure out whether he was buried, or simply swallowed up by the mud.
Most Read Stories
The long-term goal is to glean every detail the bones can yield about how Kennewick Man lived and died, and what his relationship might have been to the continent’s earliest inhabitants.
“This is something that should have been done years ago,” said Seattle archaeologist Jim Chatters, who was the first researcher to inspect the bones after they were discovered in July 1996.
When carbon dating showed the skeleton was between 9,200 and 9,500 years old, Chatters knew he was dealing with one of the oldest, best-preserved sets of human remains in North America. Eager for the nation’s leading experts to examine the find, he was preparing to ship the bones to the Smithsonian Institution for 20 days of intensive study when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers seized them.
As owners of the Kennewick river bank where the bones were unearthed, the Corps planned to hand them over to local Indian tribes for burial. A federal law designed to stop the desecration of Native American graves requires that human remains be turned over to indigenous people who can show an ancestral connection. A group of five regional tribes stepped forward to claim what they called the Ancient One.
But eight scientists sued for the right to study the bones, arguing they could offer invaluable insights into early man. A pagan group from California even joined the legal fray, to protect what they said might be an ancient Norse forebear.
An attorney for the scientists estimates the federal government spent $6 million on the court battle. That includes $2.6 million in attorney fees awarded to the scientists when the federal court ruled in their favor. The judge concluded there was no clear link between Kennewick Man and modern-day Native Americans.
“When you start getting back 1,000 or 5,000 years or more, you’re getting to a period of time where those linkages are really not possible to make,” said Doug Owsley, a forensic anthropologist from the Smithsonian.
“It’s important to be able to study discoveries like this, because it’s part of American prehistory,” said Owsley, who participated in the lawsuit and is leading the science team.
Skull and pelvis scanned
While the case crawled through the courts, the bones remained locked in a basement room at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum. The door to the vault requires two keys to unlock, one held by the Corps of Engineers, which retains ownership of the remains.
A Corps curator hand-carried the skull and pelvis to Chicago in early June for the CT scan. The bones, in a protective carrying case, got their own seat on the airplane, said Corps spokeswoman Nola Leyde.
The industrial scanner used to create three-dimensional pictures of the bones is three times more powerful than machines used in medicine. Clear plastic models are being generated from the images, Owsley explained.
Because the Corps of Engineers has forbidden the researchers to glue the bones back together, they will rely on the models to see how broken sections interlock. Scientists will also take a series of detailed measurements to compare with skeletons from different groups of people around the world and through time.
Earlier studies concluded Kennewick Man’s facial features don’t match those of Native American populations — or many other population groups.
The most famous image of his face may not be altogether accurate, either. An early reconstruction depicts him as hawk-nosed and thin-lipped — a dead-ringer, some say, for Patrick Stewart, the actor who played Capt. Jean-Luc Picard on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” A later computer reconstruction by Owsley suggests slightly different features, with a wider nose, fuller lips and deep-set eyes.
Based on previous skull measurements, scientists say Kennewick Man most closely resembles the Ainu, an aboriginal group that still lives in northern Japan but doesn’t resemble the nation’s modern inhabitants.
The new studies will help fine-tune those comparisons, Owsley said.
Scientists used to believe the first New World inhabitants arrived in a wave about 11,500 years ago, walking across an ice-age land bridge between Siberia and Alaska. But a handful of anomalous skeletons like Kennewick Man and scattered evidence of earlier settlements may indicate several waves of migration from different parts of Asia and the Pacific, said David Carlson, head of the anthropology department at Texas A&M University.
“It’s possible Kennewick Man represents one of those migrations that hasn’t left very many — or even any — descendants.”
Buried or left where he fell?
The best evidence of lineage would come from DNA analysis, Carlson said. Government scientists tested small leg-bone fragments several years ago, with no success. The new study team may try again with the same fragments. So far, the Corps has refused permission to take any more samples from the skeleton.
To even handle the remains, the scientists had to agree to elaborate precautions, including use of an elevated sandbox covered with cloth where the bones can be arranged without contacting a hard surface.
Much of this week’s work will focus on figuring out what happened to the bones between Kennewick Man’s death and discovery: How they weathered out of the bank; how they were oriented in the sediment; whether they were exposed to sun or the gnawing of animals.
That will help determine whether he was laid to rest by his people, or left where he fell. It will also provide a baseline for sorting out the dings and breaks that reflect injuries suffered during his lifetime.
The pattern of bone healing shows he recovered from the spear in his hip, and lived several more years — perhaps to the age of 40 or more. His left arm appears withered, while the rest of his body was well-muscled. In the next phase of study, scientists will delve into these features in more detail.
“He’s going to get the Cadillac treatment in terms of very careful, comprehensive analysis to try to figure out as much as possible about him and where he came from,” Owsley said.
“There’s nothing in the anthropological record that can tell you more about past peoples than the bones themselves.”
Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or firstname.lastname@example.org