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Kennewick Man: Pre-history’s Amanda Knox?

A clay reconstruction of Kennewick Man's face was created based on the bone structure. 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.

Another K-Man takeaway is that, while science is a route to truth, there are many false starts and wrong turns along the way. After all, the questions we choose to ask and the studies we choose to conduct are subject to human judgment, academic in-fighting, funder agendas and unexamined cultural baggage. In other words, science is not immune to human bias and limitations.

Amanda Knox, circa 2007. Credit: Amanda Knox Defense Fund

Much of the K-Man controversy began with a question: Did the tribes have the right to decide the fate of his bones. This is a political question with a long sordid history all its own. (For an entertaining, opinionated and sometimes jolting view of Northwest anthropology and Native American studies, check out Jay Miller's recent collection of essays: "Rescues, Rants, and Researches.")

Media reports about the new K-Man book have emphasized its heft: It is 688 pages and carries a $60 price tag. A Smithsonian story attributes its volume to the work of its co-editors and the "50 physical and forensic anthropologists, archaeologists, geologists, geochemists and others, who studied the nearly 300 bones and fragments…." All of which conveys a sense of scientific thoroughness and gravitas.

But it's a fair bet that whatever is in those pages will stoke as much debate and argument – and as many appeals – as Foxy Knoxy whipped up in that Perugia court room. It’s too bad that, unlike Amanda, Kennewick Man isn’t around to write his own book.

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