Kennewick: Who's whose ancestor?

May 27, 2001|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

"Ancient Encounters: Kennewick Man and the First Americans," by James C. Chatters. Simon & Schuster. 303 pages. $26.

When old human bones first began washing from a Columbia River bank in Kennewick, Wash., five years ago, the coroner handed them, in a plastic bucket, to archaeologist James C. Chatters. Chatters had helped police with many forensic investigations. This case, however, would be the most momentous of his career.

At first, the long, narrow skull, narrow forehead and high, prominent nose bridge looked European to Chatters. Native American skulls were shorter and rounder, with broad faces. Perhaps this was a 19th century pioneer.

But the teeth were worn nearly flat, a Native American trait. And a closer look revealed a stone spear point embedded in the dead man's hip bone. Astonishingly, the point was a Cascade type, perhaps thousands of years old. Carbon dating later confirmed the bones to be 9,500 years old.

The news caused a sensation. Chatters' use of the word "Caucasoid" to describe the skull led many to the unintended conclusion that "Caucasians," maybe even Europeans, had somehow wandered into North America 9,000 years before Columbus.

Native Americans bristled. The local Umatilla tribe and others, invoking federal law, claimed Kennewick Man as a forefather, demanding his bones for immediate reburial.

Chatters' first-person account of the ensuing legal brawl is a revealing and compelling argument in support of eight scientists who are suing the federal government to save the bones from reburial. They are too ancient to be affiliated with any modern people, they argue, and should be preserved and studied as the heritage of all mankind.

Chatters has helped Indians recover other remains. But here he sides with the scientists, saying Kennewick Man lived "450 generations ago in a culture now forgotten, speaking a language now dead, among a people who may be extinct."

He charges that federal agencies - perhaps to curry the Native Americans' cooperation on unrelated issues - ignored scientific evidence, misapplied federal law, acted unconstitutionally in support of tribal religion, and even allowed Kennewick bones to be contaminated and plundered by visitors.

The litigation's importance becomes clear as Chatters moves on to a fascinating exploration of what he and other scientists learned about Kennewick Man before his bones were locked away, and about the brutal, hungry world his kind inhabited.

Exhaustive, but almost always highly engaging, his account describes the "paleo-Americans" whose 39 distinctive skeletons have turned up. Neither "Caucasians," nor "Indians," their bones, teeth, DNA and tools link them to ancestors in Central Asia, ancient people whose descendants also spread to Australia, Polynesia, northern Japan - and Europe.

Growing evidence suggests they ventured into the Americas intermittently, along the Pacific coast, beginning at least 30,000 years ago. Skin boats may have helped carry them swiftly past Alaskan glaciers, to sites from Kennewick, to Chile, to Pennsylvania.

Ancestors of the Umatillas and other "modern" Indians didn't arrive from Siberia until 13,000 years ago, Chatters says. And their bones, teeth, DNA and tools were starkly different from those of the "paleos" they would overwhelm.

As different, perhaps, as those of next invaders, in 1492.

Frank Roylance, a Sun science reporter, has written about space and astronomy for more than a decade and tracks developments in other disciplines as well. In 1994, he wrote an extensive article on the discovery of a fossil of Homo erectus in Kenya by Johns Hopkins anatomist Alan C. Walker.

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