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Burke archaeologist challenges Smithsonian over Kennewick Man

A Burke Museum archaeologist is raising the alarm over the Smithsonian's science. Their mistake? No peer review.
The University of Washington's Burke Museum

The University of Washington's Burke Museum Flickr user javacolleen

Kennewick Man's bones.

Kennewick Man's bones. National Park Service

The discovery of Kennewick Man, the name given to the 9,200 year-old skeleton unearthed in southern Washington nearly a decade ago, has unearthed plenty of questions among anthropologists and tribal members about what Kennewick Man's life might have been like. To Burke Museum anthropological archaeologist Peter Lape though, the biggest question at hand is whether peer review, a time-honored scientific practice, is being ignored by leading forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley, whose team has been the only one allowed to study Kennewick Man's bones since they were discovered in the mid-90s.

Lape, the curator of achaeology at the Burke Museum and an associate professor of archaeology at the University of Washington, is unhappy with this scenario. He believes that many facets of Owsley's team's conclusions — such as the isotope results to speculate on Kennewick Man's diet and the potential elasticity of a human skull — stem from tricky aspects of forensic anthropology and he's bothered by the fact that no one outside of Owsley's team has had a chance to scrutinize the Smithonsian's data to see how the team reached its conclusions.

"Any of this is open to discussion," he said. "Bones are not open books, especially not 9,000-year-old bones."

Many of the findings in question were made public in early October, when Owsley, a leading forensic anthropologist with the Smithsonian Institute, briefed Mid-Columbia tribes and the public in central Washington about the results of six years spent studying the 9,200-year-old Kennewick Man.

Owsley is editing a book of the detailed scientific results of the Kennewick Man studies, written by several scientists, that is due out in 14 months. Owsley and science writer Susan Walker also wrote a recently published book for laymen on the subject: Their Skeletons Speak, Kennewick Man and the Paleoamerican World.

What bothers Lape though is the absence of peer-reviewed articles published prior to Owsley unveiling the bones' secrets. Standard procedure in the academic world is for scientists to submit articles to scholarly journals, have other experts review the articles prior to publication, and then have experts debate results after publication. While Owsley has consulted extensively with his group of experts, he has yet to publish a scholarly article on Kennewick Man.

"He's never published any scientific results of his studies. There's no place for anyone to look at the actual data. ... You have to have a higher amount of scrutiny in the scientific process," Lape said.

Attempts to reach Owsley for comment on Lape's criticisms were unsuccessful.

Kennewick Man's skeleton was discovered in 1996 along Kennewick's Columbia River shoreline. The skeleton — incredibly intact for being 9,200 years old — sparked a legal duel between five Mid-Columbia tribal nations and a group of anthropologists led by the Owsley and the Smithsonian Institute. The tribes argued that the skeleton is one of their ancestors and should be reburied in accordance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). The anthropologists, for their part, wanted to study the bones, and argued that there is no evidence of a direct relationship between the skeleton and today's tribes.

Part of the dispute's background has been a practice of anthropologists digging up Indian remains and storing them in museums, often unstudied and violating Native American spiritual beliefs.The Smithsonian was a repository of unstudied Indian skeletons until Congress enacted NAGPRA in 1990 to begin repatriation of remains. 

In 2002, the anthropologists won the right to study Kennewick Man in federal court. Meanwhile, both sides agreed to store the skeleton at the neutral Burke Museum at the University of Washington, where it is today. The anthropologists physically examined Kennewick Man for two--a-half weeks -- split ins two segments in 2005 and 2006. For six years, Owsley coordinated more than a dozen experts, who analyzed the bones in numerous ways. The unusually long duration of the study, Owsley said earlier this month, was due to other multiple commitments scientists were juggling multiple at the time.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Nov 2, 7:50 a.m. Inappropriate

Props to Professor Lape for calling b.s. on the lack of peer review for Owsley's work on Kennewick Man. This casts a dark shadow over Owsley's investigation and raises the question about whether Owsley is more interested in promoting sales of his book than finding out the truth about Kennewick Man. SHAME on the Corps for allowing this to happen.

Mud Baby

Posted Fri, Nov 2, 8:48 a.m. Inappropriate

Peter Lape is right on this one. Good scientific research, testing and conclusions means that others can verify the data and findings. Until there is an independent peer review of Owsley's findings his results won't mean much.

Posted Fri, Nov 2, 3:34 p.m. Inappropriate

Perhaps, Mr. Stang, you should include in your articles the views of people who actually witnessed Dr. Owsley's talk on October 10. I believe you were there, but the objective of your articles seems to wound rather than instruct, and otherwise push people's buttons. Dr. Lape was not there, nor was Dr. Brooks, yet both are quite vocal under the masthead of Crosscut as arbiters of science. Where were these and other respected anthropologists in Washington in 1996 when Kennewick Man first entered the public sphere and their principled support for an array of scientific tests then would have perhaps saved the fights that followed, and continue. In 1996 the Corps shut-off all analysis of "the Man" himself, until they were forced, grudgingly, to grant some scientific scrutiny by court decree.

Dr. Owsley was explicit in his October 10th public presentation that he was presenting a forensic case like he would in court testimony,specifically is a physical description of the individual, pathologies and disease processes present at time of death, how he died, and the post mortem environment. He was explicit about those details science has a record of high statistical accuracy (for example, age and sex based on bone morphology and measurements), versus where statistics point in a likely direction (for example, the polynesian characteristics), and, versus where he steps out from the pack with a point of view that is not necessarily shared among colleagues (for example, the heavy marine-based diet). Dr. Owsley was clear that he was not attempting to describe a population of people, that is the community from which Kennewick man derived, based on a sample of one individual. It is simply incorrect to claim, as you do Mr. Stang, that "The team concluded that Kennewick Man came from the West Coast..."

It is ironic, laughable even, when putative scientists critique other scientists from articles written for readers with limited time in the popular press, as the recent Owsley talk portrayed in the Seattle Times or Crosscut. It is also laughable the dominant critique is scorn for Dr. Owsley apparently by-passing peer review for the points he discussed in a public forum. It is rare an edited book containing the separate work of several scientists, like the upcoming volume on Kennewick Man due for release in 14 months, has not endured numerous anonymous peer reviews and subsequent revisions. Nevertheless, just because Dr. Lape and other critics have not personally seen the draft reports that will form the book before publication, does not mean substantive reviews by scientists, or anyone else, are forever foreclosed.

Please note I am not impugning Dr. Lape; he is a serious and thoughtful scholar and his characterization of scientific transparency through peer review is correct. However, his comments in Mr. Stang's article do not reflect accurately Dr. Owsley's nearly two- hour public presentation on October 10.

markdeleon

dmark

Posted Sat, Nov 3, 12:22 a.m. Inappropriate

As the "Burke archaeologist" quoted in this article, I need to clarify one of my critiques of Owsley, which was not quite captured accurately here. My complaint is not that Owsley is bypassing peer review (that would be surprising). It is that Owsley has chosen to present his results in the popular media and in public talks like his recent ones at Wanapum BEFORE presenting his results in peer-reviewed publications. This means that his conclusions cannot be challenged or supported by other experts.

In a highly politicized case like Kennewick Man/the Ancient One, this transgression of scientific protocol means that Owley's statements have an outsized impact on public opinion--his words are taken by many people as truth because we can't have a real debate about his data, methods or conclusions for at least another 14 months (which will be over seven years since he and his team began their studies). The irony that strikes me is that an appeal to universally shared scientific knowledge was at the center of the Bonnichsen at al. (Owsley's co-plaintifs) legal argument for access to study the remains.

I'm all for scientists presenting their results in the media and to local communities in addition to scholarly publications. In less sensitive cases in might be OK to do that before the peer reviewed publications come out. I'm encouraged that Owsley saw fit to accept the generous invitation of the Wanapum and other Native people to share what he has found out. I can imagine a scenario in which a meeting of those same people and in the same spirit in 1996 might have saved us all a lot of heartache and money. But now that Owsley has played the scientist card, he has to play like a scientist and open up his data for all to see and evaluate, not just those who could make the trip to Wanapum on October 10.

Peter Lape

peterlape

Posted Sat, Nov 3, 10:48 a.m. Inappropriate

I don't see what they are crying about at the Burke, they do the same thing! I found an artifact, contacted the Burke, they wouldn't tell me what it was, non disclosure statements on the e-mails, and then they wanted me to bring it in so they could "look at it". I was warned no to let them get their hands on it by several college professors, because they have a habit of not giving stuff back.The Burks loss I guess....

Posted Thu, Nov 8, 11:21 a.m. Inappropriate

Oh please. How can someone tell you what something is without seeing it? Who has not had their stuff returned to them? Vague innuendos are not very useful.

Posted Tue, Nov 27, 12:01 a.m. Inappropriate

Archaeologists are discouraged to speculate on 'artifacts' over the phone. Do you know how many calls people make there about rocks that they 'think' are artifacts!? A lot. And if you've found your 'artifact' on private property it is your private property by law (unless its human remains). They can't take it from you... lets use a little common sense.

kwoppy

Posted Sun, Nov 4, 1:14 p.m. Inappropriate

To All,

Yes, there should be peer review. Age and sex are relatively 'easy'
compared to age ( a matter of wear and tear in anyone over 30), but the isotope studies, and geographic origins are statistically based conclusions - and the sample size for comparison is extremely small. Maybe, you've got 25 intact skeletons older than 8000 years for a 'base' but within that, at best 7 (SEVEN) intact skulls.

For isotopes, you look at the collagen, but you have to compare it to SOMETHING. Although the conclusion that 'this is a coastal person who ate fish and seal meat' may not be terribly controversial, it may be disappointing to the Umatilla or Yakima Tribes. But the guy was traveling along the Columbia River, a documented trade route (based on trade goods found at various interior sites). But you can just as plausibly make the case the individual was coming back home after living for a time on the coast.

The educated guess of 'Polynesian' geographic origins is more likely wrong than right. Polynesian maybe a press interpretation of 'Asian'. But the guess of 'Polynesian' is way too fine grained, based on the existing science, and puts one in mind of Dr. Chatters, who did the first forensic work-up, and his mis-characterization of Caucasoid, proto-Caucasoid or paleo- Caucasoid and all the other piling on by the white race theoreticians, with their theories of a land bridge across the Atlantic.

At the end of the day, I believe the Tribal point of view should prevail: 9500 hundred years ago, somebody cared enough to give this man a respectful burial. When the studies are completed, with respect,
he should be buried again.

Ross Kane
Warm Beach

Ross

Posted Sun, Nov 4, 6:21 p.m. Inappropriate

According to eyewitness accounts, seals followed the salmon up to the cataracts at Celilo Falls prior to the completion of the Dalles dam in 1957. Celilo falls and what is now Kennewick would require a multi-day walk - probably quite reasonable. As Ross Kane points out, the Yakama, Umatilla, Warm Springs and the other Nations whose people visited the the Columbia seasonally to fish could very well have consumed pinnepeds. And not just due to the trade that occurred in that great gathering place, but possibly because they hunted and consumed seals well into what we think of as 'the dry side of the mountains'. Celilo Falls and other Columbia River cataracts are believed to have formed during the Missoula floods, long before the apparent age of Kennewick Man.

MCBean

Posted Mon, Nov 5, 7:48 p.m. Inappropriate

Update: Have learned from dear friend (specialist in PNW geology) that Missoula floods likely did not form Celilo falls per se; the 'step' in the river is likely a change in bedrock configuration. Floods tend to wipe falls out, not form them. So by this theory, Celilo Falls was likely there, and perhaps attracting seals to the salmon, long before the Missoula floods. Fascinating country, ours.

MCBean

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