A 9, 000-YEAR-OLD SECRET

When last heard from, 9,000-year-old Kennewick Man was in federal court, his battered bones the subject of a tug of war between scientists who wanted to study them and Indian tribes who sought to bury them. Almost from the moment he came tumbling out of the muddy bank of the Columbia River during a speedboat race in 1996, the proto-American with the "Caucasoid-like" skull has been arousing passions on all sides. Was he a messenger from the past, bearing evidence that the New World was populated not just once, by way of the now vanished land bridge from Siberia, but at different times, by unrelated groups, from diverse parts of the world? If so, who were his people--and who were the ones who embedded a stone spearpoint in his right hip? Or was he merely an uncommonly remote ancestor of the Northwest Indian tribes who live along the river today, and who are thereby entitled to bury him according to their rites? Last week he was in the news again as scientists began studying the 300-odd pieces in which he was found, hoping to answer the first questions raised by any human remains: how did he die, and how was he buried?

The examination, ordered by a federal magistrate in 2002 and affirmed by an appeals court last year, came as a disappointment to the Indian coalition which had claimed the skeleton under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. This 1990 law, which gives tribes custody of human remains to which they can plausibly assert a cultural kinship, was meant to remedy the wholesale 19th-century plundering of Indian corpses for museums and private collections. But it had never been tested in a case involving a hypothesized ancestor separated by hundreds of generations. And the proportions of Kennewick Man's skull were different--not as long or broad, but bigger front to back--from modern Indian skulls (and from any other present-day population). One early description used the word "Caucasoid," giving rise to a boomlet in speculation about Europeans' settling North America from the east. Anthropologists now say the closest match appears to be with the Ainu, an ethnic minority in Japan.

The Indian position is that it doesn't matter when Kennewick Man lived, or what size his head was. "[Indian] remains are sacred to the native peoples because we are a part of this earth and we were put here to take care of the land," says Rex Buck Jr., a religious leader among the Wanapum. They were supported by the Department of the Interior, which was eager to show its good will by turning the skeleton over for burial. Nor did the tribes feel the need to research how their ancestors got to America, because they already know the answer. "From our oral histories, we know that our people have been part of this land since the beginning of time," Armand Minthorn of the Umatillas contended.

To the scientists, the chance to examine the remains was self-evidently a triumph for reason. "It comes down," says Douglas Owsley of the Smithsonian, "to the right to ask questions of the past." He and 10 colleagues spent a week poring over the bones, studying faint chemical stains and microscopic pat-terns of breakage and the tiny beads of calcium carbonate that accumulate on the downside, indicating how the corpse was positioned. To minimize handling of the skeleton, which the Indians still hope to rebury, the scientists scanned the bones and made three-dimensional models that could be measured and pieced together to give a better idea of what Kennewick Man might have looked like under the skin. As to his world, and who else lived in it, that information must await new discoveries elsewhere. In 1998, apparently in response to the Indians' fears that more skeletons might be unearthed, the government buried the discovery site under 2 million pounds of dirt.

Join the Discussion