Kennewick Man debate heats up
He was about 175 cm tall, a vigorous middle-aged man who for years had carried a spear point lodged in his hip, apparently without ill effect
He had a long face, a long low brain pan, a prominent nose and other skull measurements that distinguished him from most, if not all, of the modern world's distinct human populations.
He bore no resemblance to any modern American Indian, and some scientists have suggested that he was more Caucasoid than Asian. This possibility has made him perhaps the most celebrated and controversial skeleton ever found in North America.
"Kennewick Man," discovered by accident near the banks of Washington state's Columbia River three years ago, is believed to have lived and died more than 9,000 years ago. His is one of perhaps three dozen ancient skeletons found in the Western Hemisphere whose facial dimensions have little in common with today's Native Americans. Discovered in locations as diverse as a south Florida sinkhole and a cave in Brazil's central plateau, they are anthropological anomalies.
Almost from the moment of his discovery, Kennewick Man became a focal point in the debate over the origins of America's first inhabitants. He is also the center of attention in an ongoing conflict between scholars and Native Americans over custody of such national antiquities.
On Aug. 3, a team of Interior Department scientists examining Kennewick Man's remains will meet in Walla Walla, Wash., with American Indian tribal groups to outline their current investigation and announce plans to continue their efforts to better understand who Kennewick Man was and where he came from.
The team members now believe that Kennewick Man, currently stored in Seattle's Burke Museum, was formally buried, and that he lay relatively undisturbed until wave action gouged away his resting place and tumbled his bones into the river. They also believe parts of his body may have been painted with a red dye that stained the bones as soft tissue decomposed.
Most important, physical anthropologist Joe Powell, an Interior Department team member from the University of New Mexico, ran Kennewick Man's skull measurements through a data base describing "almost 300 different populations" worldwide and found "no matches - Kennewick Man does not fit in."
The remains thus cast further doubt on the migration theory that has dominated American anthropology for most of this century. The hemisphere was settled in one mass migration about 11,500 years ago by Asiatic peoples crossing an Ice Age land bridge from Siberia to Alaska across what is now the Bering Strait.
Kennewick and some other recent finds suggest multiple migrations from different points of origin. Other ancient remains, including some more than 11,000 years old, show affinities with Australian aborigines, African bushmen, Polynesians, medieval Scandinavians and Ainu from northern Japan, as well as central, southern and southeast Asians.
Kennewick Man may have been a Caucasoid, with the long-faced, beak-nosed facial type most frequently (but not exclusively) associated with Europeans.
"These skeletons are all over the place. It makes it very difficult to make statements about who got here first," says Powell. "Kennewick is very important, because it provides another glimpse of this early period."
Kennewick Man comprises more than 380 bones and bone fragments recovered from a 27-sq.-meter section of river bottom. Interior team leader Francis P. McManamon, the department's chief consulting archaeologist, says the skeleton is 80 percent to 90 percent complete. The bones were not worn down, an indication that they had not been long in the Columbia.
Powell also explains that while the Kennewick bones showed "rodent gnawings," there is no evidence that they had been disturbed by dogs or other large scavengers. This suggests deliberate burial rather than a solitary death in the wild.
The investigators also found bones that had been stained red, suggesting ceremonial treatment at burial.
"As the body decomposed, red ochre from the skin may have left a film on the bones," Powell says. But he acknowledges that the dye may simply have come from iron deposits in the river sediment.
The team found nothing that suggested a cause of death, but easily ruled out the spear wound, since bone had regrown around the point, an indication that the man had carried it for several years.
The team has little to say about Kennewick Man's ethnic origin.
"Part of the problem is that the groups we see today may not have existed 15,000 years ago, and continual reimmigration has also muddled the picture," Powell says. "This skull is relatively long, but over time heads got rounder. The same thing happened in Europe."
Although Kennewick Man does not match today's Native Americans, the tribal groups meeting Aug. 3 with a team of Interior Department scientists in Walla Walla, Wash., have claimed the remains for reburial. The five Native American tribal groups also oppose further tests that would require bone fragments, including a planned radiocarbon analysis to corroborate the age of the skeleton, and a possible DNA profile performed at a later time.
According to Deborah Croswell, spokeswoman for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Kennewick Man's spear point, soil samples from the river bank and an earlier radiocarbon test already have proven that the remains are Native American.
Under the 1990 Native American Protection and Repatriation Act, the Interior Department has decided that before it turns over the Kennewick remains to the tribes, the team must not only show that the remains predate recorded European settlement, but also that they are "culturally affiliated" with a present-day tribe.
"The second requirement is much bigger," says McManamon. "We'll look at biological information, archaeological information, creation myths and other things. It will take time."
Watching carefully to ensure that the work goes forward is a group of eight nationally known anthropologists who filed suit against the government in 1996 to forestall any plans it might have had for summary repatriation of the remains to the tribes.
"We just want them to follow the procedures outlined in the law," said Dennis Stanford, chairman of the Smithsonian Institution's anthropology department and one of the plaintiffs. "It is my hope that the investigation can be completed, and that future research will be allowed to continue."
A SCATTERING OF MIGRANTS - The Kennewick Man's skull features do not fit any known populations, lending credence to the theory that there were multiple migrations to North America from various points of origin. Other skeletal remains found in North America suggest links to populations from various parts of the globe.
The sculpture at left gives a hypothetical face to the reconstructed skeleton of the Kennewick Man. The Washington Post graphic