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Kennewick Man: Pre-history's Amanda Knox?

A new book shares what exactly scientists have learned during their decade-long study of K-Man's prehistoric bones. The findings will be controversial. Everything about K-Man is.
A new book may answer some of the questions surrounding the mysterious Kennewick Man, but not all.

A new book may answer some of the questions surrounding the mysterious Kennewick Man, but not all. Credit: Brittney Titchnell/Smithsonian Institute

Get ready for a new deluge of Kennewick Man debate. The scientists who had long argued for access to study his 9,000-year-old skeleton are at long last about to publish their findings.

The results are certain to be controversial if for no other reason than everything about K-Man is controversial. Battle lines are drawn, motives are questioned, moral authority is asserted and psychological projections proliferate. He's Indian! He's white! He's pagan! Polynesian! Asian! He looks like Patrick Stewart!

Somehow, K-Man has become the Amanda Knox of anthropology, as much of a chameleon as our notorious Northwest co-ed. He's lucky he didn't live to see it.

This fall, Texas A&M University Press is bringing out "Kennewick Man: The Scientific Investigation of an Ancient American Skeleton." The book, edited by Douglas Owsley and Richard J. Lantz, contains a series of chapters by various experts, who detail what exactly scientists have learned during their brief access to the bones nearly a decade ago. K-Man’s remains are held in a kind of "trust" at Seattle's Burke Museum. Scientists obtained access through a federal lawsuit that resisted attempts by Native American tribes to have the bones re-buried. That fight came to be characterized as a battle between white science and Indian belief.

Some of the scientific findings previewed in 2012 in Grant County are laid out in detail in the new book. Kennewick Man, for example, was stocky, strong, had survived serious injuries (including a spear in the hip), looked "Polynesian" and likely came from farther north than the place his body was found in 1996 – along the Columbia River in the Tri-Cities.

His diet consisted largely of fish and sea mammals. Some have suggested that he might have been a wandering man of Asiatic origin or ancestry. Or perhaps seals and sea lions were abundant along the un-dammed, salmon-loaded Columbia River nine millennia ago.

We've heard lots of the theories before. The new book gives us the first look at peer-reviewed science. But even its authors don't agree on all the details, such as where that famous spear point lodged in K-Man's hip bone might have come from.

According to the Washington Post, the book’s co-editor Douglas Owsley, the head physical anthropologist for the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, described K-Man as "a long-distance traveler," which suggests distant origins. An analysis of isotopes indicates that he survived on seal meat and glacial meltwater, which might suggest that he came from more northern climes, like Alaska or the Aleutians. This has given rise to "the rambling' man hypothesis."

The characterization of K-Man as some exotic vagabond seems to run counter to the notion that he should be buried where he was found and to the claims by Native Americans to his remains. But is our understanding of the peopling of the Americas correct? Do we fully grasp the environment, the culture, the mobility and the context of K-Man? Do we have enough data to conclude anything definitive from the remains of a single skeleton?

From Day One, K-Man has been an exceptional find, and the focus of many competing visions of the past. This new book will provide scads of new data and context. But it may not give us many definitive answers.

Any study of K-Man’s remains is necessarily incomplete. One argument for keeping his bones available for scientific study – a case made by new book author Douglas Owsley and others – is that emerging technologies and techniques might tell us much more in the years to come than we can learn at present. And the results from DNA testing of K-Man’s bones currently being conducted by a firm in Denmark might help clarify his origins or at least focus the debate.

Two things at least are certain about Kennewick Man. He was discovered at a time when our theories about where the people of the Americas came from were shifting. Scientists were already beginning to abandon the notion that our ancestors crossed into present-day America, in a single surge, along a single Aleutian land bridge. If nothing else, the longtime land bridge explanation seems to be crumbling in favor of a consensus that the movement of early humans was more complicated than that.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Sep 2, 11:41 a.m. Inappropriate

There is "glacial meltwater" up and down both sides of the Cascades. Is there something about the isotopes found in the bones that precludes a more local origin?

louploup

Posted Tue, Sep 2, 12:11 p.m. Inappropriate

Every ski often I wander to the Crosscut web sit to see if there is anything of interest. And what i invariably find there is tripe and trash like this article. Nothing new is said that hasn't been reported int a wide variety of press in much better articles last week.

And the the references to MS Knox simply begs the question of the lack of personal integrity and journalistic knowledge and laziness of Mr Berger. His efforts sat trying to be cute and snarky are appalling. Writes about what you know and who you know.

But you don't either.

Posted Mon, Sep 8, 10:17 p.m. Inappropriate

Lesser Seattle indeed. Time to push the gray hairs and their Birkenstock out.

Simon

Posted Tue, Sep 2, 12:17 p.m. Inappropriate

I, also, object to the use of Amanda Knox. It strikes me as bullying. I thought your Party opposes that, Knute.

BlueLight

Posted Tue, Sep 2, 1:23 p.m. Inappropriate

Sorry Knute, I'm not seeing the connection.

orino

Posted Tue, Sep 2, 6:59 p.m. Inappropriate

Foxy Knoxy? The crosscut is dull and the rakers are not set at the proper depth, this one needs to be sharpened and adjusted by a professional.

Djinn

Posted Tue, Sep 2, 8:43 p.m. Inappropriate

I am amazed how the writer creates an analogy between some prehistoric being and Amanda Knox. Who or what is Knute Berger writing about? If the goal is to insult and demeen Ms. Knox with the allusion to "Foxy Knoxy" then why the pretense about interest in the Kennewick man?

DBakes

Posted Wed, Sep 3, 11:48 a.m. Inappropriate

Agree with DBakes. The Knox allusion adds nothing to the Kennewick Man story, is in bad taste, and adds further insult to Ms. Knox. This story really needs to be removed and rewritten.

ptdoug

Posted Wed, Sep 3, 1:40 p.m. Inappropriate

All of the comments thus far are themselves fairly dense and dumb. While certainly not funny (was that the even the intent of this article?) this is an article about the nature of the debate not about the facts of "k-man". And it certainly says nothing really about Amanda Knox but more about the debate that has raged around her. Also the author has been in general an advocate of Amanda's so... use your noggin guys and gals, thinking is required even for this (below average) piece.

Also bad puns don't really say anything about journalistic integrity...

Posted Thu, Sep 4, 11:13 p.m. Inappropriate

Knute is losing it.

Posted Fri, Sep 5, 11:03 a.m. Inappropriate

Oh, come on, people! Perhaps you didn't like the wording, but it is an analogy, get it? Controversial/polarizing PNW figures? Knute, ignore them. This a very interesting topic.

Seasoned

Posted Mon, Sep 8, 10:19 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm amazed Knute didn't mention the Bubbleator or 1962 World Fair somehow. Amanda Knox? That's just literary laziness.

Simon

Posted Tue, Sep 9, 6:33 a.m. Inappropriate

Neither the Bubbleator or the 1962 Worlds Fair represent a polarizing local individual.

Seasoned

Posted Tue, Sep 9, 6:38 a.m. Inappropriate

No, they're just tiresome.

Simon

Posted Tue, Sep 9, 12:06 p.m. Inappropriate

Knute's come-on and what he can arouse—the Crosscut Ribs newly advertised on my tele?

afreeman

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