The Japan Times, August 25, 1997
By NICHOLAS K. GERANIOS
Battle over Kennewick man's bones
KENNEWICK, Wash. (AP) To scientists he is Kennewick Man, a visitor from the past who may have invaluable information about early human life in North America.
To the Umatilla Indians, he is Ancient One and his bones must be returned to rest immediately.
One year after high water washed his 9,300-year-old remains out of the Columbia River's edge here, the bones are the subject of a controversy that threatens to obscure new insights into the prehistoric peoples of the New World.
Kennewick Man was found on July 28, 1996, when two college students attending the Columbia Cup hydroplane races literally tripped over the skull. The nearly complete skeleton (all the major bones except the sternum) was brought to local archaeologist James Chatters by law officers who thought Kennewick Man might be a modern murder victim.
Preliminary examination of the skull showed Caucasian features, and a broken spearhead lodged in the pelvic bone. Chatters thought the bones might date back to 19th-century pioneer days. He took skull measurements and performed other forensic work, noting the person had suffered a lot of injuries in his 40 to 50 years, including numerous broken ribs, a crushed chest, a broken arm and nerve damage in his left arm that left him with diminished use of it. Then he sent a piece of bone to a lab to be carbon dated.
Chatters was stunned when the results came back. The remains were 9,300 to 9,600 years old, the oldest ever found in Oregon or Washington and one of the oldest human skeletons ever found in North America.
The discovery drew a firestorm of protest from five Northwest Indian tribes, who succeeded in halting the studies and now want the bones reburied without further examination.
On the other side, a group of archaeologists, including some of the top scientists in the field, have filed a federal lawsuit to gain access to the remains. The U.S. Senate recently passed a bill calling for further study of the bones.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the land where the remains were found, confiscated them a few days after the carbon dating. The bones are now locked in a special vault at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in nearby Richland, where they cannot be studied, photographed or buried.
The tribal coalition, led by the Umatillas of northeast Oregon, contends the discovery site and the broken spearhead are sufficient evidence of Kennewick Man's Indian ancestry. Umatilla religious leader Armand Minthorn's statement summing up the tribe's position is posted on its Internet site:
"If this individual is truly over 9,000 years old, that only substantiates our belief that he is Native American. From our oral histories, we know that our people have been part of this land since the beginning of time. We do not believe that our people migrated here from another continent, as the scientists do."
The four other tribes seeking the remains are the Yakamas and Colvilles of Washington, the Wanapum Band of Yakamas and the Nez Percé of Idaho.
Chatters, who made the most thorough examination of the bones before they were confiscated by the federal government, was the one who noted the Caucasoid features. He said the first thing he noticed was the narrow face and long head, a feature of Caucasoid peoples.
"It was not consistent with Native American skulls I worked with around here," Chatters said at his home in Richland. "Modern Native Americans are clearly Mongoloid, especially those of the Northwest." There are other more subtle differences between these bones and Indian remains, he said.
He said his initial study suggests Kennewick Man's contemporaries may have arrived on the continent first, to be succeeded by the ancestors of today's American Indians.
A handful of other remains, dating back to the same period as Kennewick Man and sharing his Caucasoid features, have been found previously, mostly in the western United States where drier weather helped preserve them.
If they are Caucasoid, that raises questions about what happened to Kennewick Man and his contemporaries when the Indians arrived. They left almost no trace and appear to have been completely wiped out.
The Umatillas reject arguments that failure to study the bones could also be a loss of Indian history.
"We already know our history," Minthorn wrote. "It is passed on to us through our elders and through our religious practices."
Chatters is one of eight archaeologists suing the corps for permission to study the bones. While the scientists are not allowed to see the bones, members of local tribes have been allowed into the vault to perform religious ceremonies, said Corps of Engineers spokesman Dutch Meier.
In June, U.S. Magistrate John Jelderks of Portland, Ore., ordered the corps to determine if the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 applies to the bones. If it does, they must be returned immediately for burial.
The case is the first big legal challenge to the repatriation act, which required the nation's museums to return to tribes the human remains, burial items and other cultural objects collected from sacred sites since Europeans arrived in the New World. The scientists contend Kennewick Man cannot be linked to an existing Indian tribe and thus is not covered by the law.
No court action is expected until October.
"Skeletons that old are extremely rare. Every one has something to tell you," said University of Tennessee anthropologist Richard Jantz. Jantz, one of the nation's top authorities on ancient skeletons, also is a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
People with Caucasoid features also live in the Middle East, in Asia, India, Japan and on some Pacific islands. It is conceivable their ancestors crossed the Pacific or the Bering land bridge or some other lost link between Asia and North America, Chatters says. It is also possible they walked across the frozen North Atlantic between Norway and Newfoundland 16,000 years ago.
When it comes to Kennewick Man, Northwest Indians are not the only people with a claim to possible kinship Chatters says. That is why the find is so tantalizing.
"I have a stake in this," Chatters says. "If he is anybody's ancestor, he's everyone's."
CONTENTION—A cast of the 9,200-year-old skull of the Kennewick Man shows Europoid features, say archaeologists, and could cast new light on early man in America.
Related Links at the REPATRIATION AND REBURIAL ISSUES page:
Kenewick Skeleton Dispute
Several recent stories relate to the Kennewick skeleton dispute. Reburial Dispute by Andrew L. Slayman gives coverage from Archaeology Magazine. Position Paper: Human Remains Should Be Reburied by Armand Minthorn, Board of Trustees member and religious leader with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation gives views of a Umtilla leader.
Kennewick Man: A debate that spans over 9,000 years is a Tri-City Herald web site with several stories about the dispute. You can also read about the dispute in the Society for American Archaeology Bulletin.