Kennewick Man, meet La Brea Woman

LA may soon have a new star in the war over old bones.
LA may soon have a new star in the war over old bones.

The headline on the Seattle Times website last week was startling: "Kennewick Man Charged with Murder." Had an archaeological enigma risen from the grave to commit mayhem? The paper soon revised the head.

But here's another story of actual interest on the subject of old bones. Turns out in Los Angeles, there's LaBrea Woman, 9,000 year human remains found in the area of the famous tar pits which trapped so many prehistoric animals. The skull was on display at the Page museum, but was quietly removed from view. Are the bones subject to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NGPRA), the law that generated an epic court battle over Kennewick Man? Should they be in a museum, for returned to a local tribe for burial?

Adding fuel is a forensic artist Melissa Cooper's rendering of LaBrea Woman's face. Such facial reconstructions are controversial, and often fuel ancient bone politics. It was a bust of Kennewick Man that made him look like Star Trek actor Patrick Stewart that helped fuel the notion that K-Man might have been caucasian. LaBrea woman is portrayed here as a pretty Native-American. Artist Cooper tells the Los Angeles Times:

"There are hints within the skull that she may have had Native American features," said Cooper. "You can tell by the way the nose was pointed and the depth of her eyes. Based on the skull, she had Asian features which does coincide with Native Americans."

But as was learned in the case of Kennewick Man, you can't draw broad conclusions about race from an individual skull alone. Some argued that K-Man was white, based on certain characteristics, while others insisted he was a Native American ancestor. The fact is, there is a lot of variation in skulls within racial groups and our current racial breakdowns might not apply to people 9,000 years ago. However, speculative portraits by artists can be a powerful tool for mobilizing public opinion. Who knows that better than Hollywood?

Ready for your close-up, Ms. LaBrea?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.