For Kennewick Man, a return from the dead

Nearly 16 years and numerous lawsuits after the discovery of his 9,200 year-old skeleton, scientists can finally tell us a bit more about Kennewick Man.
Kennewick Man's bones.

Kennewick Man's bones. National Park Service

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.

But eight anthropologists, led by Owsley, contested that proposed repatriation, pointing to Kennewick Man's potential contributions to science and the fact that he could not be linked to any specific area tribe. In 1996 the group filed a lawsuit with a U.S. District Court in Portland. Five Indian nations — the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Yakama Indian Nation, the Nez Perce Tribe, and the Colville and Warm Springs nations — teamed up to fight the anthropologists in court, contending that the repatriation law covered Kennewick Man, and that scientific examinations disrespected Native American beliefs about the sanctity of their dead. The Wanapum, though not a federally recognized tribe because they never signed any treaties with the United States, nonetheless supported the others in this matter

In 2002, Judge John Jelderks ruled in the anthropologists' favor. The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that ruling in 2004. The Corps, which remains Kennewick Man's legal guardian, put him in the Burke Museum, a neutral site agreeable to both the tribes and scientists. Today Kennewick Man is stored in numerous specially designed boxes in the Burke Museum's nondescript, but electronically secure basement. The museum is mum on his exact location for security reasons.

Temperature and humidity sensors monitor each storage locker. The greatest room climate changes occur when a locker is opened. The bones are handled as sparingly as possible, since merely holding them — even with the required protective gloves — can rub off thin bits of irreplaceable matter. Meanwhile, no one else besides the litigation's plaintiffs — and Chatters in the 1990s — have studied the bones.

Even after they finally began in 2006, scientific studies dragged out for six years. The scientists were juggling numerous other long in-depth projects and the studies themselves were extensive. Scans, molds and models were made. Countless bone fractures were sorted out — pre-death, post-mortem and post-post-mortem (thousands of years later). Calcium carbonate and algae deposits on the bones were analyzed. Teeth — only one molar was missing — were studied. 

Those studies have led to two books. The first, Their Skeletons Speak: Kennewick Man and The Paleoamerican World, by Owsley and science writer Susan Walker, came out this month as a public-friendly look at the bones. Another super-thick scientific book, written by numerous scientists, is due out in another 14 months according to Owsley, who led the studies and is editing the book.

But what those books won't say is how Kennewick Man died. That's the hardest question of all. "I do not know. It will take someone with better eyes than I to tell what killed him," Owsley said. At least for now, some facts about Kennewick Man are staying buried. 

John Stang covers state government for Crosscut. He can be reached by writing editor@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Oct 11, 7:39 a.m. Inappropriate

John, way to stay with this story over the years. You must be one of the few journalists still writing about this story who saw Kennewick man where he was found. Good story.

Posted Thu, Oct 11, 8:08 a.m. Inappropriate

A few errors in this story: "The Wanapum, though not a federally recognized tribe because they never signed any treaties with the United States." That is not the criteria for federal recognition of a tribe. Second, "atlati — a rod and string used to throw a spear." An atlati is actually a piece of wood with a notch or SLING (not string) at the end to fit the base of a spear, held by hand at the other end, to give an extra boost to the spear.

mbrenman

Posted Thu, Oct 11, 9:21 a.m. Inappropriate

There's another angle to this story that needs to be explored. The tribes want the Kennewick Man's bones not because they believe he's Indian, but because they know he isn't. The more conclusive the evidence, the more insistent they are about (literally) burying the evidence. Note how the federal Interior Department dumped tons of rock debris on the site of the discovery back in the 90s to prevent any more digging or discovery. You want a REAL snapshot of the "war on science"? Of politics attempting to smother scientific inquiry? The battle over Kennewick Man is Exhibit A.

Posted Thu, Oct 11, 10:10 a.m. Inappropriate

John: It's true there are some Native American "creationists" who never wanted the bones examined--that has been covered. The driver of the controversy is the long, shameful history in the way scientists have treated native human remains. And it's an ongoing problem elsewhere too--remember WSDOT's Port Angeles graving dock fiasco? I would hardly characterize Kennewick Man a "Exhibit A" in the "war on science." The war against global warming science and evolutionary theory trump K-Man by far in terms of consequence. My pick of the week for anti-science poster child would be GOP Congressman Paul Broun--a member of the House science oversight committee!--who says "evolution and embryology and the big bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell."

Posted Wed, Oct 17, 7:09 p.m. Inappropriate

There is no doubt that the tribe is doing something that is anti-science, but claiming that this is "REAL" anti-science in no way excuses a whole slew of anti-science positions of the Republican party, and in no way validates the unspoken subtext that Democrats must be supporting the tribe on this issue.

Tiffany

Posted Thu, Oct 11, 11:46 a.m. Inappropriate

Carlson might have made an overstatement ("Exhibit A") but his larger point is valid. Native burial traditions are important and should be respected. But one wonders why, as evidence moves Kennewick Man further and further from any modern-tribal linkage, pressure still exists to lock away and literally bury an invaluable scientific find. The clear abuses of native burial sites in the past shouldn't predispose us to err just as far in the other direction in future cases. A law has been established to deal with this; sounds to me like it's being followed. But many readers who follow the story are going to have the same question about motives that Carlson presents above.

rjudd

Posted Thu, Oct 11, 12:13 p.m. Inappropriate

I agree it's valid, and there was a federal court case with extensive coverage of those arguments, including criticism of the Native American viewpoints. Scientific research is happening, as Owsley's report indicates, and the findings are the news here. But it's also true that there is a political context for both the science and the resistance to it.

Posted Thu, Oct 11, 12:52 p.m. Inappropriate

Clearly. Not arguing to rehash the entire case with every update. On the other hand, since the court case and much of its coverage were 16 years ago, it's likely a lot of readers have no recollection of the repatriation arguments, which seem more specious now than ever.

rjudd

Posted Thu, Oct 11, 4:11 p.m. Inappropriate

Skip: Yes, there's a "political context" to this dispute, but it's not the one you're putting forth. The real "driver" of this controversy was the tribes' fear that the first identifiable human in this area was not an Indian whose characteristics could be traced to a current or historic tribe.

That they grew more insistent about burying the bones as it became increasingly clear that they weren't Native American rebuts your contention that they wanted them buried because they were ancestral. Whether their demands were rooted in concern about historic claims to being original settlers or even whether Kennewick Man was the thread that could eventually unravel historic land claims is open to speculation. That they used political clout to stop further inquiry into researching these ancient remains is not disputable. This anti-science crusade extends well beyond a few "creationist" Native Americans. This is politics attempting to trump science -- and it's a far more vivid illustration of it than an ongoing policy dispute about man's impact on current warming trends.

Posted Thu, Oct 11, 4:31 p.m. Inappropriate

The reality is..these are the findings of one scientist and the story was rushed out without any interviews or consultation with other experts. It makes for good reading that way. Our state agency has not seen Owsley's data. Science requires verifiable results. I think his findings would be more believable if the state, King County Medical Examiner (terrific staff), the Burke Museum and UW have an opportunity to verify the results and conclusions. Right now, this is just one guy with his own set of results. John, exactly what do you think is Native American? Kennewick man was in the Columbia River valley over 9,000 years ago. The fact that he has a slightly different head shape is not surprising. Our English ancestors from hundreds of years ago didn't have the same body shape we do now..but they are still ancestors to many Americans (go through a castle door one day without hitting your head). A slightly different head shape is not a reason to jump to conclusions and last I knew there were seals along the Columbia River. One man's findings are not the only answer. Its a fascinating case but one news article about one guy's findings is not science. Its an interesting hypothesis. How related is anyone to anyone from 10,000 years ago? I think everyone is just jumping too conclusions far too quickly.

Posted Fri, Oct 12, 2:01 p.m. Inappropriate

"This is politics attempting to trump science -- and it's a far more vivid illustration of it than an ongoing policy dispute about man's impact on current warming trends.

Reply
— John Carlson"

John:
I have trouble regarding this as a "far more vivid" illustration than the well organized, very highly funded effort to influence national policy by attempting to "muddy" the science regarding global warming.

Steve E.

Posted Fri, Oct 12, 2:12 p.m. Inappropriate

allysonbrooks:
We're all related to some people who lived 10K years ago. And it wouldn't be surprising if there were some people with some Polynesian ancestry in the Americas at different times. The old conceptual framework of a single land based migration from NE Asia during the interglacial period simply doesn't comport with the evidence anymore. But its still quite possible that KM passed on his DNA to other people on this continent at the time. But where or who his descendants are now is a complete mystery. He was apparently a traveler from the coast, so the inland tribes are unlikely to be his descendants, even assuming that their ancestors already lived in that area. Personally, I simply can't bring myself to recognize as legitimate claims that are inherently based on religious fundamentalism and creationism (i.e., "we have always been here").

Steve E.

Posted Fri, Oct 12, 2:44 p.m. Inappropriate

Steve E. - I don't disagree with your assessment that we are all related to someone from 10,000 years ago..nor do I disagree that there very well and very likely multiple migrations into the North American continent..however, my point is..that everyone is jumping to conclusions based on the findings of one scientist who's results haven't been verified by other scientists.... its too bad that they were never able to take a DNA sample.

Posted Fri, Oct 12, 10:37 p.m. Inappropriate

Allysonbrooks, I too would love to see Dr. Owsley's work validated by the King County Medical Center and the UW. The chief obstacle? The tribes. They don't want anyone else investigating these remains. Indeed, they are the reason that such severe limits were placed on the time allowed for Dr. Owsley to do his work.

Steve E: You simply have the money issue backwards - way backwards. There is far, far more money available for those who wish to validate global warming theory (from government agencies, universities and green companies with an interest in shaping public policy in their direction), than in the relative paucity of funds available to those who question the conventional wisdom.

Posted Fri, Nov 16, 9:04 p.m. Inappropriate

John: The chief obstacle in Owsley's work is not the tribes. It is the fact that Owsley and his team have not released any of their data so their conclusions cannot be verified by the rest of the scientific community. We do not need to reexamine the bones to substantiate or refute their claims. I think everyone is confident that their data collection and methods are sound, but interpretations are just that.

I'm a staunch advocate for public outreach, however Owsley has been making statements to the public about their interpretation of the results before any input from the scientific community. To me, this seems a little irresponsible.

kwoppy

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