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Kennewick Man

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« on: May 07, 2007, 03:16:28 pm »

 K E N N E W I C K   M A N
By James C. Chatters

Encounter with an Ancestor

The discovery of a human ancestor variously referred to as Kennewick or Richland Man has shed light on the complexity of human immigration to the western hemisphere and ignited a controversy that may affect the future of paleoanthropology in the United States.   


On July 28, 1996 two young men encountered a human skull in the Columbia River at Kennewick, Washington.  That evening I was contacted by Coroner Floyd Johnson, for whom I  conduct skeletal forensics.  I joined him at the site and helped police recover much of the skeleton.  During the next month, under an ARPA permit issued by the Walla Walla District Corps of Engineers, I recovered more wave-scattered bones from the reservoir mud. Throughout the process, I maintained contact with the Corps, which interacted with two local Indian Tribes.
 The completeness and unusually good condition of the skeleton, presence of caucasoid traits, lack of definitive Native-American characteristics, and the association with an early homestead led me to suspect that the bones represented a European settler.  I first began to question this when I detected a gray object partially healed within the right ilium.  CT scans revealed the 20 by 54 mm base of a leaf-shaped, serrated Cascade projectile point typical of  Southern Plateau assemblages  from 8500 B.P. to  4500 B.P.  However, similar styles were in use elsewhere in western North America and Australia into the nineteenth century.  Nevertheless, the  point raised the possibility of great antiquity, while the skeleton's traits argued for the early nineteenth century.  We either had an ancient individual with physical characteristics unlike later native peoples' or  a  trapper/explorer who'd had difficulties with "stone-age" peoples during his travels.  To resolve this issue, the Coroner ordered radiocarbon and DNA analyses.   

Forensic Observations

I conducted a standard forensic examination and measurements with assistance from Central Washington University student Scott Turner, and photographed the skull, teeth, and pathologies.  Physical anthropologists Catherine J. MacMillan of Central Washington University and Grover S. Krantz of Washington State University examined the skeleton briefly.  Kenneth Reid, Rainshadow Research, helped identify the projectile point.  Kenneth Lagergren, DDS interpreted dental X-rays, and Kennewick General Hospital CT scanned the right innominate and cross-sections of longbones.  AMS dating was conducted by Donna Kirner of the University of California at Riverside, who also measured amino acid composition and stable C and N ratios.  Frederika Kaestle of the University of California, Davis attempted DNA extraction.

  Illustration 1996, Jamie Claire Chatters
 The skeleton is nearly  complete, missing only the sternum and a few small bones of hands and feet.  All teeth were present at the time of death.  This was a male of late middle age (40-55 years), and tall (170 to 176 cm ),  slender build.  He had suffered numerous injuries, the most severe of which were compound fractures of at least 6 ribs and apparent damage to his left shoulder musculature, atrophy of the left humerus due to the muscle damage, and the healing projectile wound in his right pelvis.  The lack of head flattening from cradle board use, minimal arthritis in weight-bearing bones, and the unusually light wear on his teeth distinguish the behavior and diet of Kennewick Man from that of more recent peoples in the region.  A  fragment of the fifth left metacarpal analyzed by AMS has an isotopically-corrected age of 8410 +/- 60 B.P. (UCR 3476) (ca 7300 to 7600 B.C.).  Amino acids and stable isotopes indicate heavy dependence on anadromous fish.  DNA was intact, but two partially-completed extractions were inconclusive. 

The man lacks definitive characteristics of the classic mongoloid stock to which modern Native Americans belong.  The skull is dolichocranic (cranial index 73.Cool rather than brachycranic, the face narrow and prognathous rather than broad and flat.  Cheek bones recede slightly and lack an inferior zygomatic projection; the lower rim of the orbit is even with the upper.  Other features are a long, broad nose that projects markedly from the face and high, round orbits.  The mandible is v-shaped,with a pronounced, deep chin.   Many of these characteristics are definitive of modern-day caucasoid peoples, while others, such as the orbits are typical of neither race.  Dental characteristics fit Turner's (1983) Sundadont  pattern, indicating possible relationship to south Asian peoples. 

Current Status

On August 30, four days after the startling radiocarbon result, the Corps insisted all studies be terminated and soon took possession of the skeleton. After publishing their intent to repatriate the remains to an alliance of five tribes and bands--Umatilla, Yakama, Nez Perce, Wanapum and Colville--the Corps received numerous requests for scientific study from citizens, congressmen and anthropologists.  The Colville then filed a separate claim of their own.  A group of internationally-known archaeologists and physical anthropologists filed suit, asserting that NAGPRA does not apply to this case and seeking the opportunity for study.  The Asutru Folk Assembly, a traditional European religion, also sued for the right to determine if this individual was their ancestor.  The Umatilla, who have taken the lead on the issue, intend immediate reburial in a secret location.  The remains now lie in a federal repository awaiting resolution.

The Unknown and Unknowable

The Kennewick discovery, along with other recent finds in Nevada, may significantly alter conventional views of how, when, and by whom the Americas were peopled.  If the Corps persists in its refusal to allow additional studies and decides on immediate  repatriation, experts will lose the chance to directly examine this rare phenomenon.  Although I have studied him extensively and learned much about his life, our descendants--of whatever ethnicity-- will lose the broader view that only multiple perspectives  can provide.  Data that might be used for such studies in lieu of actual bones remain incomplete as of this writing.  When the remains were seized, I had yet to take measured photographs of the postcranial skeleton, and I was still waiting for specialized equipment for state-of-the-art skull measurement.  Furthermore, DNA was well preserved and, if restrictive enzyme analysis and detailed sequencing were completed, we might ultimately learn this man's relationship to other peoples of his time and ours.  In broader view, reburial without study may set a precedent that forecloses the opportunity for study of most future paleoAmerican finds. 

Much, however, is beyond our reach regardless of political outcomes.  No matter how long we might study the Kennewick man we would never know the form or color of his eyes, skin and hair, whether his hair was curly or straight, his lips thin or full -- in short many of the characteristics by which we judge living peoples' racial affiliation.   We will never be certain if his wound was by accident or intent, what language he spoke, or his religious beliefs.  We cannot know if he is truly anyone's ancestor.  Given the millennia since he lived, he may be sire to none or all of us.   

Turner, Cristy G. II  (1987)  Late Pleistocene and Holocene population history of east Asia based on dental variation. American Journal of Physical Anthropology  73: 305-321.     

James C. Chatters (Phd University of Washington (1982) is currently the owner of Applied Paleoscience, which emphasizes developing applications of archaeological and paleoecological data to modern resource management.  Recent archaeological publications include "Population growth, climatic cooling, and the development of collector strategies on the Southern Plateau, Western North America (Journal of World Prehistory  9:341-399, 1995) and "A paleoscience approach to estimating effects of climatic warming on salmonid fisheries of the Columbia River basin (Canadian Special Publication in Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences  No. 121:468-473).  Current writing projects address millennium-scale fire histories in Northwest forests, dynamics of salmon productivity during the Holocene, resource intensification among hunter-gatherers, growth increment analysis in freshwater mussels, and interpersonal violence in Plateau  Prehistory. 

This article originally appeared in the "Newsletter of the American Anthropological Association."
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 Copyright 2004. Smithsonian Institution.
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