If Kennewick man had stayed hidden for just one more month, most of the tough, widely-roaming hunter from the West Coast might have never been found.
A few weeks before the Tri-Cities' July 1996 hydroplane races, high flows in the Columbia River likely eroded the shoreline beneath Kennwick Man's shoreline grave, causing his skeleton to drop into the river. A few weeks later, the river swelled again — enough to scatter Kennewick Man's bones along the Columbia's bottom.
But West Richland college students Will Thomas, then 21, and Dave Deacy, then 19, hit a month-long sweet spot in the skeleton's 9,200-year journey through time when the pals decided to hang out with some brews between races in a clump of woods a few hundred feet upstream from the hydro course. They waded into the water, and Thomas stubbed his toe about 10 feet offshore. "Hey, we have a human head," Thomas joked. He thrust his hand about 1 1/2 feet underwater and grabbed what felt like a big rock.
It was a skull that stared back at him.
At the moment, the pair was more interested in ladies. They stashed the skull in a tiny wooded column, figuring it wouldn't go anywhere. After the next race, they got the skull, found a cop, and put the cranium in a beat-up old white bucket. Everyone figured it was a drowning or murder victim. A later search turned up the rest of the skeleton.
A month later, local anthropologist James Chatters determined the skeleton to be 9,200 years old.
That announcement set off a long federal court battle between Northwest Indian tribes and several anthropologists over whether Kennewick Man should be studied or reburied. The tribes contended he was Native American and their ancestor, and should be returned for burial under the Native Graves and Repatriation Act. Scientific study of Native American remains is considered spiritually sacrilegious under tribal belief. The scientists saw a rare opportunity for study: the number of full American skeletons that old is less than five. The scientists ultimately won in court, helped along by the fact that Kennewick Man is so old he could not be concretely linked to any modern tribes.
This week, 16 years after his discovery, many of Kennewick Man's secrets were finally made public at a briefing by Smithsonian Institute forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley. Owsley, who has studied Kennewick Man for nearly a decade, released new information about the skeleton to a group of more than 150 people on Wednesday. The group, which gathered at the Grant County PUD headquarters near the Wanapum dam, including members of the Wanapum tribe. On Tuesday, he briefed Inland Northwest tribal leaders in Ellensburg.
Kennewick Man, Owsley announced to the crowd, was a long-range wandering hunter, likely from the Pacific Coast 200-plus miles away. "He's a really hardy soul. He's a really tough guy," he said. The middle-aged wanderer, scientists believe, was 5-foot 7 or 8 inches, theoretically 161 pounds, with a major league baseball-caliber right throwing arm and a Polynesian-like face with good-enough teeth for a "fabulous smile."
"Kennewick Man is absolutely expressive in telling us about his life," Owsley said.
Wanapum tribal elder Rex Buck Jr., wasn't as happy about the photos of Kennewick Man shown Tuesday and Wednesday. The images, he said, were hard for tribal members to look at because of the tribe's beliefs about the sanctity of their dead and displaying the actual bones. Still, tribal leaders hold out hope that meeting with scientists will start talks for the eventual reburial of Kennewick Man.
The facts about Kennewick Man were a long time coming. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the Columbia River shoreline through the Tri-Cities, initially claimed ownership of the skeleton and tried to send it to area Native American tribes under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990.
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